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My mother-in-law is pretty amazing. She lives independently in her own apartment where she hosts a weekly book club. She swims laps a good four days a week, walks a few miles most days, and is always enrolled in some type of continuing education class. She reads incessantly, is up on all the latest movies and current events, and has “letters to the editor” published regularly in newspapers.

She has a great sense of humor and is fun to be around, which is probably why she has so many friends (many in their 50’s and 60’s) as well as an incredibly active social life. She is physically and mentally healthy. And she never turns down a “happy hour.”

Oh, the amazing part? She will be 95 years old, or should I say young, in a couple of weeks.

Why does my mother-in-law feel and act younger than her age? Is it just because she has embraced life to the fullest, or is it something else? Could it be that her brain is actually aging slower than is typical?

Researchers found that older people who feel younger than their age actually display fewer signs of brain aging on MRI scans compared to others, according to a study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience earlier this year. These people were also more likely to score higher on a memory test, view their health as better, and be less likely to report symptoms of depression. The researchers found a correlation between subjective age (the age that an older person feels) and their demonstrated brain age (an objective measurement). Basically, if you feel younger than your chronological age, chances are good that your brain age reflects that with better cognition and memory skills.

There are actually biomarkers that indicate brain age — we have less grey matter as we age. In this study, the scientists examined 68 healthy adults between the ages of 59 and 84. Grey matter volume in different regions of the brain was measured, and cognitive testing was conducted. Participants also answered questions about how old they felt and if their subjective age was younger or older than their chronological age. Those who reported feeling younger than their age scored higher on memory tests, felt physically healthy and were less likely to feel depressed. What was most significant is that those participants who reported feeling younger than their actual age had more grey matter in critical regions of the brain than those who felt older.

Researcher Dr. Jeanyung Chey of Seoul National University in Korea, who worked on the study says:

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

As is often the case with scientific research, we are left with more questions. Which comes first, the decrease in grey matter, or the “feeling old?” Could it be that those who feel younger naturally gravitate to a more active lifestyle that includes exercise and socialization, both of which can help older adults stay mentally and physically fit?

We don’t have all the answers but we do know of ways to keep ourselves “young.” Staying physically active, maintaining a positive mindset, engaging in new activities and cultivating social connections are all ways to stay more youthful as we age. While we all most likely won’t be able to keep up with my mother-in-law, each of us can do our best to age in as healthy a way as possible.

References

Kwak, S., Kim, H., Chey, J., & Youm, Y. (2018, July 7). Feeling how old I am: Subjective age is associated with estimated brain age. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 10: 168. Retreived from https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2018.00168

Kim, B.K. (2018, September 12). Think young to stay young: Aging and attitude [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.labroots.com/trending/neuroscience/12704/stay-young-aging-attitude

Are You Really as Young as You Feel?