Your age in your head vs. your chronological age (and why it matters)

Split profile: younger/older

As I write this article, I’m all too well aware of my age: I’m 62, and I know it. But in my head, I’m more like 50. (My neck suggests I’m roughly 87, but that’s another matter altogether.)

The discrepancy between my actual age and the age I am in my head — my “subjective age” — is a common and much-studied phenomenon. Turns out that, at least in Western cultures, most adults’ knee-jerk answer to the question “how old are you in your head?” is substantially and predictably different from the age on their driver’s license.

Subjective age isn’t just a parlor trick, though. The age we are in our heads can have implications for our physical health, mental well-being, and prospects for aging.

For those over 40, research has shown that the answer to the question “how old are you in your head?” — a different question, it’s important to note, than “how old do you feel?” — is usually 20 percent less than a respondent’s actual chronological age. So a 55-year-old reading this magazine is about 44 in his or her head. Following that formula, I would be expected to say, as I just told you, that I’m 50 in my head. 

Before we move on, take a moment. How old are YOU in your head?

We were inspired to pursue this story by the publication of Jennifer Senior’s story “The Puzzling Gap Between How Old You Are and How Old You Think You Are” in the April 2023 issue of The Atlantic. In her exploration of subjective age, Senior cites a leading study conducted in Denmark in 2006 in which nearly 1,500 adults were asked how old they were in their heads. The study, published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, unearthed data that revealed and supported the 20 percent rule of thumb. But the two authors further determined that this formula doesn’t apply across a person’s lifespan. In fact, they found that people under age 25 tend to feel older in their heads; their younger subjective age doesn’t kick in until they cross the 25-year mark. After 25, the study showed, people gradually begin to feel younger in their heads to various degrees until they hit 40, after which time their subjective age remains pretty consistent at 20 percent less than their chronological age. 

That pattern argues, the study authors observe, against the understanding — commonly held among those who study gerontology and related fields — that the difference between real and subjective age remains constant across the lifespan and that it represents a form of lifelong inner denial about aging. Instead of that “age denial” approach to understanding the phenomenon, the authors suggest that a “lifespan-developmental” model is a better fit, allowing for the variations in our subjective ages throughout our lives.

That distinction may mean more than it appears at first blush, Senior suggests. “Researchers who [focus on people’s tendency to subtract from their ages] often propose a crude, predictable answer — namely, that lots of people consider aging a catastrophe, which, while true, seems to tell only a fraction of the story. You could just as well make a different case: that viewing yourself as younger is a form of optimism, rather than denialism. It says that you envision many generative years ahead of you, that you will not be written off, that your future is not one long, dreary corridor of locked doors.”

pull quote from Jennifer Senior article
Source: The Atlantic, April 2023

Senior’s article explores how we arrive at the age we feel in our heads. For some, she speculates, that age reflects the age at which the “broad contours” of your life — your primary romantic relationship, your profession, your housing situation — might be in place, but you haven’t yet gotten caught up in the rush of parenthood and the weeds of a long marriage. Others, though, get locked into a specific subjective age because they have experienced a significant or even “calamitous” life event — the loss of a parent or sibling, for instance — at that age. And for some, the age in their head is that at which they recall first feeling like a completely formed human being, which can happen at any age at all.

Russell Ward, professor emeritus of sociology at the University at Albany, has researched perceptions of age for decades. In real life, Ward is 76. “But in my head, I’m in my 60s,” he says. “I think that’s true of a lot of people as they age. I’m still pretty much the same person as I was then.”

Ward wrote his doctoral dissertation about the stigma associated with aging and people’s tendency to attach negative labels such as “elderly” to themselves and others. He says the research he did in the 1970s indicated that “we all have a mental image of our life course, one that’s reinforced by all kinds of cultural images. People tend to exaggerate the problems of being older in terms of psychology, health, and finances, and we internalize those images. The images you receive when you’re younger tend to stay with you as you age.”

“But I came back to it more recently, at the end of my career,” continues Ward, who retired in 2015. “I came across a national survey data set that examined the same questions I’d looked at in the ’70s and found that, after 41 years, the language surrounding aging is less negative than it used to be, and the word ‘senior’ has become a more positive label.”

That’s important, Ward says. “If you feel old, you’re likely to be more concerned about your health and what the future looks like. Maintaining a more anchored self, feeling that you haven’t changed much,” can help you preserve a sunnier outlook, Ward notes.

Of course, our physical health can influence our subjective age, and vice versa, Ward suggests. “If you enjoy good health, you might feel better about yourself. The two reinforce each other.”

If subjective age has such profound implications, for better and worse, is it possible to change our subjective age? “A senior 20 to 40 years ago is not the same as a senior or older adult today,” says Diane Conroy-LaCivita, executive director of the nonprofit Colonie Senior Service Centers in Albany and a 57-year-old who feels 35 in her head. “It’s always evolving as people are living longer and there are opportunities for more health care.”

While Colonie’s services and programs are not expressly aimed at altering anyone’s subjective age, Conroy-LaCivita sees abundant evidence suggesting that that’s how things play out. “The more social activities people participate in, the less they concentrate on their aches and pains and things they are missing and the more they enjoy the things they can do,” she says. 

Conroy-LaCivita recalls an older patron who came to Colonie after losing his wife. “Like so many others, particularly men, who are just lost after losing their wives, he started by just coming for lunch. He met people, started participating in activities, trying new hobbies.” Pretty soon, she says, he became one of the “popular people on campus,” met a woman, and got married.

Conroy-LaCivita cites this experience as an example of the malleability of the age we are in our heads. This man, she suggests, felt a lot older in his head when he first came to lunch than he likely does as a newlywed. At the end of the day, she says, “What’s wrong with feeling 30?”

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