A recent study published in the journal Frontiers of Medicine was the first study of its kind to look at the relationship between brain aging and SA. The study involved 68 healthy participants between 59 to 84 years of age. Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) brain scans, researchers recorded data on grey matter volumes (density of cells) in specific brain regions. Grey matter is the “thinking part of the brain” that grows throughout childhood. See this infographic to learn more about grey matter. Regions of the grey matter are involved in muscle control, seeing, hearing, memory, emotions and speaking. Participants filled out subjective age surveys that included the question, “How old do you feel, compared to your real age?” along with tests to evaluate their cognitive function (brain activities that lead to knowledge and include reasoning, memory, attention and language), global health ratings, symptoms of depression and personality traits. The results include:
- Participants who felt younger than their real age showed larger grey matter volume in the parts of the brain involved in impulse control, hearing/processing sound and verbal/non-verbal communication. Their brains had younger structural characteristics (looked younger), and the differences stayed the same even when other factors were taken into account, such as personality, subjective health (a person’s view of their health), symptoms of depression and cognitive functions. These participants were more likely to score better on a memory test, rate their health as better and were less likely to report symptoms of depression.
- Participants who felt older than their real age showed a tendency to have poorer cognitive function and showed greater depressive symptoms. It is possible that those participants who feel older than their actual age may be sensing the aging of their brain because performing cognitive tasks takes more effort.
The results are in line with earlier research finding a relationship between self-perceived age and cardiovascular death. Why might this be the case? One explanation is that people who feel younger will do healthier behaviours. For example, people who feel older may stop being as physically active based on their age – they think that are too old to do an activity. When people feel younger, even if the exercise is seen as challenging, they are less likely to see it as a barrier. If you feel young you may be more likely to eat in a healthful way because you look forward to a healthy future, whereas people who feel older may think that it’s not worth worrying about what they eat because their life is coming to an end.
Researcher Yannick Stephan of the University of Montpellier believes that doctors should be asking all patients about their subjective age, in order to determine who is most at risk of future health problems and to better plan health care. In 2018, he was a co-author of a 2018 study involving data from three large longitudinal studies of middle-aged and older adults. Consistent evidence was found for an association between an older subjective age and a higher risk of mortality. Individuals felt 15 to 16 percent younger on average than their chronological age, but for others who felt older than their chronological age there was a higher risk of mortality (those feeling 8 years older had an 18% higher risk, those feeling 11 years old had a 29% higher risk, and those feeling 13 years older had a 25% higher risk). How to keep a young mindset Dr. Siegel, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, suggests taking the following actions:
- Challenge your brain. Don’t stop learning. Try a new hobby and develop new skills.
- Be mindful of the present moment as opposed to regretting the past or being negative about aging in the future.
- Develop a sense of meaning in life. Set goals for your life. Volunteering is a great way to stay connected and improve your community and the lives of others. Self-Management BC offers volunteer opportunities throughout the province. For more information, visit the website. A great quote by Harvard psychologist Dr. Jennifer Moye is “Think of your life as a gift and strive to make each day meaningful.”
- Follow a healthful lifestyle.
Source: Science Daily website, BBC website, The New Old Age: How the body ages and how to keep it young, Harvard Medical Schoollecture