Act Your Age! Or Better Yet, Don’t 

By Anne Button

At my mother-in-law’s birthday party last month, someone asked her how old she felt.   

“Sixty-five,” she answered, without skipping a beat.

She was turning 95.

Our parents and grandparents have always been older than us, of course, so we imagine they’ve always felt older. The thing no one tells us when we’re younger is that as we continue to age, we’re not necessarily going to feel any different at our core. 

It’s the same kind of feeling we get when we go to, say, a 40th high school reunion, which I did last summer. Looking around at classmates pushing 60, you marvel at how old they seem, until you catch a glimpse in the mirror and remember, oh yeah.  

How old we feel in our mind can be different than how old we feel physically. My husband, for instance, 61 in chronological time, says that though he feels physically older when his arthritis or gout act up and limit his mobility, most of the time he feels like he’s in his mid-40s. 

Scientists have a term for this sense of feeling, in our minds, younger or older than our birth age. “Subjective age,” they call it, and they’ve been studying it since the 1970s, with increased fervor in recent years. 

Research on subjective age over lifespans from the University of Virginia in 2018 found that most kids feel older than they really are (which reminds me of a popular put-down from my youth, “Act your age, not your shoe size!”). But this starts to change in the mid-20s, and by their 30s about 70% of people feel younger than their actual age. The discrepancy grows over time. More than 80% of 40-somethings feel younger than they are; fewer than 10% feel older. 

German research, appropriately called the German Aging Survey, tracked 15,000 people over 24 years and yielded some interesting results about subjective age. Researchers found in 2023 that people born later tend to feel younger than previous generations did. That is, my kids will likely feel younger when they’re my age than I do now. 

Studies show that people who feel younger than their chronological age are typically healthier and more resilient than those who feel older, but researchers haven’t determined cause and effect: whether feeling younger makes people healthier or whether people who are healthier tend to feel younger. Nevertheless, it’s been suggested that simply asking people how old they feel can give medical professionals an indicator of who is most at risk for health problems. 

Some critics say the concept of subjective age feeds into ageist stereotypes perpetuated by a culture that prizes youth and devalues age. If old age wasn’t seen as negative, the logic goes, people wouldn’t need to feel younger than they are. A different German study found that in cultures where old age is revered, people can’t wrap their brains around the concept of subjective age. “What do you mean by how old do I feel?” an interviewee in Jordan reportedly said. “I’m 80, so I feel 80.”  

Regardless of whether subjective age is seen as an ageist construct, experts agree that our views about aging have a big influence on how we age. 

Poring through German Aging Survey data, researcher Susanne Wurm found in 2022 that people who perceive aging as a process of development and continued personal growth live an average of 13 years longer than those who view it as a time of stagnation and neglect. This echoes research on internalized ageism in the United States by Yale professor Becca Levy, which cites a seven-year lifespan dividend for those who view aging in a positive light. 

An attitude of setting limits on ourselves, claiming it’s too late or we’re too old for certain plans and activities, seems to be the worst for us. 

That bodes well for my sister, whose chronological age is 62 but whose subjective age when we get together is seemingly about 12. She came upon some school kids jumping across the roofs of storage sheds and had to grudgingly remind herself of her responsibilities as a school administrator to stop them. 

“It looked so fun,” she told me, “like the chimney sweeps in ‘Mary Poppins.’” 

Too bad she couldn’t act her shoe size.

Anne Button has lived in North Denver for nearly 30 years and raised two kids in the neighborhood. She is the founding director of the CU Denver Change Makers program, which helps older adults chart new paths. She can be reached at

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