‘Research is me-search,’ ‘we study our pathologies’ — these are the clever defenses we academic psychologists semi-smugly offer up when our interests are accused of deviating from what science deems appropriate.
So you can imagine, of course, how ruthlessly most peers poke and prod at my interest in aging (and adult sexuality!). Discussions of these matters are almost always met with expressions of disgust, light character defamation, or a swift change in conversation.
Before proceeding, I should pause to acknowledge the partial truth in the jest: Aging has always fascinated me—and it is largely for this reason that I study it. And as a graduate student in one of the nation’s only Clinical Geropsychology (jargon for the psychology of aging) doctoral programs, I spend my days happily clinic-izing and researching the lives of older people.
But another reason why I study aging is because I’ve never felt my age (alas, the me-search).
Admittedly, I’m unapologetically old-souled. At 24, I probably feel closer to 30 or 35—though, truthfully, I haven’t a clue what that actually feels like. All I really know is that I am some sort of anachronism: I’m typically the youngest in my social group, I pine for Gregory Peck, my circadian profile mimics that of an older adult’s. Also prunes are among my favorite snacks.
But what does it mean— to feel older? And why does it matter?
Subjective age vs. chronological age
This tension between one’s subjective age—that is, how old someone feels—and how old someone actually is, has quickly attracted science’s attention, and naturally, mine.
The geropsychological literature points to it actually mattering, implicating subjective age in older adults’ physical and psychological well being. Among older folks, cross-sectional and prospective analyses suggest that feeling older predicts poorer self-rated, objective, and cognitive health (Caudoit et al., 2012). Some work even argues that feeling older ought to be recognized as a risk factor for premature mortality (Uotinen et al., 2005).
Predictors of subjective age
So, what exactly contributes to feeling a certain age? Like most complicated psychological phenomena—including happiness, depression, creativity—the pathways to subjective age are probably multicausal, embedded in a network of diverse biopsychosocial factors.
For me, feeling older is tethered strongest to decades of positive social interactions with older adults. Allport’s (1954) contact hypothesis supports this, positing that, under appropriate conditions, interpersonal contact deconstructs stereotypes assigned to outgroups. It stands to reason, then, that having meaningful exposure to familial and nonfamilial older adults predicts entering gerontologically-oriented vocations, like geriatric social work, psychiatry, or nursing (Chonody & Wang, 2014).
For me, this obviously computes . My community, parents, my mentors—all throughout my development—have modeled the beauty, the complexity, the privilege of human aging. In a sense, I suspect feeling older represents my attempt to foster closeness with a group – the other—from which I have been, in some way, sanctioned from associating.
It follows that attitudes and beliefs toward aging contribute to appraisals of our subjective age. Dr. Rebecca Levy of Yale has published extensively on aging-self stereotypes, suggesting that their development have identifiable characteristics and consequences. She argues that they originate in the form of exposure to negative aging stereotypes during childhood – where the familial and cultural environment depicts older people as helpless, less capable or passive) – which are reinforced throughout adulthood. When individuals reach old age, the aging stereotypes internalized in childhood—and reinforced for decades—become self-stereotypes. These aging self-stereotypes can influence individuals’ cognition, affect, behavior, and physical health (Levy 2003; 2011) predicting impaired function and survival disadvantage (Levy, 2002) among those who harbor them.
Decades of compounded, internalized stereotyping notwithstanding—research has shown that most adults perceive themselves as younger than their actual age (Rubin & Bersten, 2006). Non-intuitively, the discrepancy between subjective age and chronological age appears to increase as people grow older. Why?
This difference is generally regarded as a denial of aging. Following from this view, the tendency of older adults to maintain younger subjective age identities has been interpreted as a form of defensive denial by which they can dissociate themselves from the stigma of growing old.
To thicken the plot, emerging experimental research demonstrates that subjective age may differentially vary in response to cues and context. Increases in subjective age, for example, have been observed after subtly priming participants with negative age stereotypes or following the administration of an experimentally-manipulated failed memory task. So too have these age fluctuations demonstrated sensitivity to physical and affective cues like pain, fatigue, or positive emotions across and within days (Pierpaoli & Parmelee, in progress).
An interpretation of these seemingly incongruent observations rests, possibly, in adults’ conscious vs. unconscious processing of these age salient stimuli.
Basic social psychology tells us that stereotypes tend to operate when cognitive resources are low, typically when we are aroused (e.g. angry) or depleted (e.g. hungry) (Macrae, Milne, & Bodenhausen, 1994). Because stereotypes are cheap and salient, they are easily accessible when we are dysregulated (experiencing mood swings). It stands to reason that when adults are cognitively burdened—such as when they are attending to an experimental memory task— sub-threshold aging self-stereotypes are more likely to be operating. But in situations of minimal to no cognitive load—such as during self-reports—adults’ probably have more cognitive resources available with which to deliberately dissociate from aging stereotypes.
Subjective age and youthanized science
This cognitive resource hypothesis—however convincing—fails to explain an interesting and unwavering observation, which is that: negative affective or physical experiences are almost always associated with feeling older, but almost never with feeling younger.
Are pain and sadness not the hallmarks of a successful pre-adolescence?
To be sure, whenever undesirable physical and psychological experiences are coupled with youth, it is typically because they are strategically weaved into conversations about growth. What seem to be inconvenient signs of aging for adults appear to be developmental opportunities—almost blessings— for everyone else.
Consider these illustrative examples: Pains in youth are attributed to growth (think about the phrase ‘growing pains’), but necessarily to decline in old age; negative affect to the volatile hormones of a developing and robust endocrine system but later, to dopamine deficiency. The feeling of age itself also appears to be conveniently rebranded! Elevated subjective age among younger adults has been linked to social potency, maturity, confidence, and affiliative behavior, for example (Montepare & Lachmanm 1989).
The obvious question is: Why?
The not-so-obvious question is: Why do shared feelings and experiences sentence adults to the constrictive decrements of age—and youth—to the expansive promises of development?
I don’t doubt the validity of these studies. I don’t even doubt the plausibility of their findings. But I do doubt the extent to which they’ve been sanitized from the residue of ageism—teased apart from the social context in which the questions of science inevitably incubate. I’m not so sure—however benign it appears—that this arbitrary assignment of adults to “aging” and youth to “maturing” –is so benign. For me, it’s symptomatic of a youthanized culture—a youthanized science.
As a gerontologist-in-training, this strong proclivity towards youth is at once incredibly fascinating but terribly counterintuitive. By almost every measure, humans experience most of life’s good stuff—increased happiness, interpersonal intimacy, self-efficacy, financial security, affective stability—in later life (Carstensen et al., 1992; Simring, 2013 ). And yet it is youth—in all of its awkwardness, naïveté, self-consciousness, uncertainty, and confusion that wins the day. Young good; old bad.
Certainly, there are older adults who—for many fair reasons—probably feel younger than their age. But whether this is true or not—good or not—is of no material concern to this argument, which is: the youthanization of science happens subtly, but surely.
It happens when we discuss adults’ aging but children’s development. When we measure outcomes of decline, disability, and depression when we could just as easily (and surely more interestingly) measure constructs of thriving, resilience, and perceived usefulness. It happens when older adults are systematically underrepresented in clinical trials in spite of their disproportionate consumption of prescription drugs and therapies (Herrera et al., 2010; Rich et al., 2016).
And it happens—perhaps most insidiously, most subtly—when we believe we are advancing “gero-friendly” constructs like subjective age that, really, are mechanisms of an otherwise deeply youthanized science.
Sandra Grundfest, EdD,a counseling psychologist who still practices at age 81, says it best: “I shouldn’t have to feel good about myself only when I am denying my age or thinking or acting younger. Or feel good when people say: ‘You don’t look your age.’ How is it really any different from saying ‘You don’t look Black, you could pass for White?’ As if young and white are the only acceptable ways to be.”
I often think about how different our gerontological data would look in a time, place, or culture where the value of age (vs. youth) had traction. It’s not so difficult to imagine that feeling older might be the desired psychological outcome in an alternative universe where the virtues of age rather than its misfortunes, were in focus.
Calls for a de-youthanized science are not lofty political appeals; they are attempts to actually improve science.
A de-youthanized science means a more valid, generalizable science—a science, for example, that adequately samples older adults in the service of providing sufficiently evidence-based recommendations for diagnosis and treatment. A de-youthanized science means inching a declinist, medicalized model of aging toward a kinder, more accurate paradigm recognizing both the gains and losses of later life. Because if we recognize later life as just another developmental period—rather than a cul-de-sac—we enlarge our repertoire of questions, and therefore, our collection of empirical observations.
It also means a more honest science, where older adults are, perhaps, allowed to self-report data truthfully, because the effects of social desirability (e.g. the tendency to want to present as younger) will have have been neutralized. Because if we are actually only measuring the denial of age, are we really measuring age at all? Promoting more cross-cultural examinations of aging can aid these efforts to de-youthanize science.
After all that has been said and done, perhaps the real question isn’t ‘How old do you feel?’ so much as it is ‘How do you feel about being older?’
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