Feeling young could mean your brain is aging more slowly

July 3, 2018, Frontiers
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

While everyone gets older, not everyone feels their age. A recent study finds that such feelings, called subjective age, may reflect brain aging. Using MRI brain scans, researchers found that elderly people who feel younger than their age show fewer signs of brain aging, compared with those who feel their age or older than their age. Published in open-access journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, this study is the first to find a link between subjective age and brain aging. The results suggest that elderly people who feel older than their age should consider caring for their brain health.

We tend to think of aging as a fixed process, where our bodies and minds change steadily. However, the passing years affect everyone differently. How old we feel, which is called our subjective age, also varies between people—with many feeling older or younger than their actual age.

But is subjective age just a feeling or attitude, or does it reflect how our bodies are actually aging? This question intrigued Dr. Jeanyung Chey of Seoul National University in Korea.

"Why do some people feel younger or older than their real age?" asks Chey. "Some possibilities include depressive states, personality differences or physical . However, no-one had investigated brain aging processes as a possible reason for differences in subjective age."

People frequently experience some cognitive impairment as they age. In fact, the brain shows a variety of age-related changes that are reflective of declining neural health, including reductions in volumes. Recently developed techniques can help researchers to identify brain features associated with aging, to provide an estimated brain age.

Chey and her colleagues applied these techniques to investigate the link between subjective age and brain aging. They performed MRI brain scans in 68 healthy people whose ages ranged from 59-84 years and looked at gray matter volumes in various brain regions. The participants also completed a survey, which included questions on whether they felt older or younger than their age and questions assessing their cognitive abilities and perceptions of their overall health.

People who felt younger than their age were more likely to score higher on a memory test, considered their health to be better and were less likely to report depressive symptoms. Critically, those who felt younger than their age showed increased gray matter volume in key brain regions. The researchers used the MRI data to calculate estimated brain ages for the participants.

"We found that people who feel younger have the structural characteristics of a younger brain," said Chey. "Importantly, this difference remains robust even when other possible factors, including personality, subjective health, depressive symptoms, or cognitive functions, are accounted for."

The researchers hypothesize that those who feel older may be able to sense the aging process in their brain, as their loss of gray matter may make cognitive tasks more challenging.

However, at present the researchers do not know for sure if these brain characteristics are directly responsible for subjective age and will need to carry out long-term studies to understand this link further.

One intriguing possibility is that those who feel younger are more likely to lead a more physically and mentally active life, which could cause improvements in brain health. However, for those who feel older, the opposite could be true.

"If somebody feels older than their age, it could be sign for them to evaluate their lifestyle, habits and activities that could contribute to brain aging and take measures to better care for their ," said Chey.

The research is part of a special article collection on assessment of aging across the lifespan.

Explore further: Perceived socioeconomic status can affect how old we feel

More information: Seyul Kwak et al, Feeling How Old I Am: Subjective Age Is Associated With Estimated Brain Age, Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience (2018). DOI: 10.3389/fnagi.2018.00168

Related Stories

Perceived socioeconomic status can affect how old we feel

May 23, 2018
A recent study finds that how older adults perceive their socioeconomic status influences how old they feel and their attitudes toward aging. Specifically, the lower people deem their relative socioeconomic status, the worse ...

Brief memory test 'ages' older adults

October 15, 2013
You're only as old as you feel, or so the saying goes. Now, research suggests that a simple memory test can have a noticeable impact on just how old some older adults feel, aging them about five years in the span of five ...

Brain stimulation helps younger, not older, adults' memory

March 1, 2018
We've all asked ourselves these types of questions: Where did I leave my keys? What was his name? Where did I park my car?

Everyday activities associated with more gray matter in brains of older adults

February 14, 2018
Higher levels of lifestyle physical activity - such as house cleaning, walking a dog and gardening, as well as exercise - are associated with more gray matter in the brains of older adults, according to a study by researchers ...

Maintain your brain: The secrets to aging success

April 27, 2012
Aging may seem unavoidable, but that's not necessarily so when it comes to the brain. So say researchers in the April 27th issue of the Cell Press journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences explaining that it is what you do in ...

Recommended for you

The neurobiology of fruit fly courtship helps illuminates human disorders of motivation

July 13, 2018
Two fruit flies meet in an acrylic mating chamber and check each other out. It's the insect version of speed dating for science.

Fragile X: New drug strategy corrects behavior/biochemical measures in mouse model

July 13, 2018
Research in mice shows that a pharmacological strategy can alleviate multiple behavioral and cellular deficiencies in a mouse model of fragile X syndrome (FXS), the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and ...

Chemicals associated with oxidative stress may be essential to development

July 12, 2018
Some level of molecules linked to oxidative stress may be essential to health and development, according to new animal studies.

The VIPs of the nervous system—a tiny population of neurons holds a master key to the body's clock

July 12, 2018
Travel by airplane has opened the door to experiencing different cultures and exploring natural wonders. That is, if you can get past the jet lag.

Novel therapy delays muscle atrophy in Lou Gehrig's disease model

July 12, 2018
Supplementing a single protein found in the spinal cord could help prevent symptoms of Lou Gehrig's disease, according to a new study out of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Researchers found high levels ...

Why are neuron axons long and spindly? Study shows they're optimizing signaling efficiency

July 11, 2018
A team of bioengineers at UC San Diego has answered a question that has long puzzled neuroscientists, and may hold a key to better understanding the complexities of neurological disorders: Why are axons, the spindly arms ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.