Eternal youth and the prospect of ageing

By Themis Halka

“I feel like I’m 100 years old today” – expressions using chronological age as a reference for physiological and psychological wellbeing are quite common in our societies (Gendron et al., 2018). It highlights the association we make between ageing and loss of capability, resulting in a general apprehension of ageing. 

This anchored fear of ageing can be assessed using chronological age, and how people determine their ‘ideal age’ on that scale. In general, young adults expect their ideal age to be in the future, while older adults situate their ideal age at some point in their past (Bellingtier et al., 2021). In the eyes of the general population, the ‘ideal age’ is a point in middle adulthood, though it varies among people. It is generally agreed that each age has its attractiveness and drawbacks. Would we represent the ‘quality’ of life as we age as a straight line or a curve?

Back in 1991, Ryff compared the rating of past, present, and future experiences for three different age groups. He found that the two younger groups had felt an improvement of all aspects during the past few years and expected their future experiences during the next ten years to keep improving (Ryff, 1991). The oldest group presented more contrasted results: some aspects were seen as improving, such as self-acceptance, while others were seen as remaining the same, and for the men, a loss of purpose in life and personal growth was reported. They expected a decline of all aspects during the next decade (Ryff, 1991). 

It seems that the fear of ageing is not only limited to younger populations. However, even in the older group, it was mainly the prospect of future changes that made them expect a decline in ‘quality’. Increased public knowledge about neurodegenerative diseases and the potential loss of physiological, and psychological capacities may have increased the fear of ageing in old age groups (Dittmann-Kohli, 1990). According to the Alzheimer’s Society, dementia is the most feared condition to develop among the British public (Alzheimer’s Society, 2016).  

Another interesting approach to research into age and life perception is to use the “felt age” of the population – how old people feel to be at that time – and compare this to the ‘ideal age’ of an individual (Bellingtier et al., 2021). Interestingly, using this approach revealed a dissatisfaction among younger people as well. The notion of SAD, Subjective Age Discordances, has been used to assess the gap observed between ideal and felt ages. Studies have found ‘ideal age’ to be constantly lower than subjective age, even in younger groups (Bellingtier et al. 2017; 2021), hence a frequent discordance resulting in a positive SAD. Younger groups don’t seem to have reached their ideal age on a chronological basis but are feeling older than they would like to.

Younger people seem to be wishing for feeling younger, if not being younger. This further observation suggests that globally, the population feels older than they would like to. Tackling the negative prejudices society has towards different ages might be seen as a solution. Images, adverts and movies reporting visions of youth might have given the population an ideal that they cannot always reach. In terms of sport and nutrition, numerous people wish they could improve themselves but don’t always have the time or means to do it. The creation of high expectations for oneself might have partly given rise to the differences between felt and ideal age. The higher variability in the SAD of young groups (Bellingtier et al., 2021) might be related to their paying more attention to media and images. 

These discordances might have concordances in ideal and perceived characteristics, capabilities, opportunities (Rupprecht & Land, 2020). In fact, a younger felt age is generally associated with a flourishing mental health, while a younger ideal age could lead to a decreased wellbeing (Keyes and Westerhof, 2012). Back in the 1980s, Birren and Renner hypothesized that the ideal and felt ages might get closer as we age, as the experience acquired over a lifetime would modify this ideal (Birren & Renner,1981). However, this theory has not been observed practically and differences seem to endure as we age. Yet, as discordances might impact the well-being of the population (Keyes & Westerhof, 2012), getting the ideal and felt age closer together might be beneficial. As previously mentioned, lowering one’s felt age might be tricky, and approaches to lower felt age have been criticised, arguing instead that increasing the ideal age would improve well-being and mental health (Gendron et al., 2018). Whilst ageing generally seems to be felt as a negative prospect, could education and emphasis on the positive aspects of ageing reduce this gap between felt and ideal ages?

Eternal youth might seem like a great prospect, enabling people to remain on the top of the ‘quality curve’. However, ageing, and the cycle of human life, is at the centre of society, providing it with stable bases for organization and function. At an individual level as well, ageing is part of our life cycle – and though some aspects of it might seem displeasing, this advancement in life is part of our development.



References:

Gendron, T., Inker, J. & Welleford, A. (2018) “How Old Do You Feel?” The Difficulties and Ethics of Operationalizing Subjective Age. The Gerontologist. 58 (4), 618–624. https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnx098

Bellingtier, J., Rupprecht, F., Neupert, S. & Lang, F. (2021) Daily experiences of subjective age discordance and well-being. Psychology and Ageing. 36 (6), 744-751. https://doi.org/10.1037/pag0000621

Gendron, T., Inker, J. & Welleford, E. A. (2017) A theory of relational ageism: A discourse analysis of the 2015 White House Conference on Ageing. The Gerontologist. https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnw155

Ryff, C. D. (1991). Possible selves in adulthood and old age: A tale of shifting horizons. Psychology and Ageing. 6 (2), 286–295. https://doi.org/10.1037/0882-7974.6.2.286

Dittmann-Kohli, F. (1990) Possibilities and constraints for the construction of meaning in old age. Ageing and Society. 10, 279-294. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0144686X00008291

Alzheimer’s Society. (2016) Over half of people fear dementia diagnosis, 62 per cent think it means ‘life is over’. https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/news/2018-05-29/over-half-people-fear-dementia-diagnosis-62-cent-think-it-means-life-over [Accessed 1st October 2021]

Bellingtier, J., Neupert, S. & Kotter-Grühn, D. (2017) The combined effects of daily stressors and major life events on daily subjective ages. The Journals of Gerontology. Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. 72 (4), 613–621. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbv101

Rupprecht, F. & Lang, F. (2020) Personal ideals of aging and longevity: The role of subjective discordances. Psychology and Ageing. 35 (3), 385–396. https://doi.org/10.1037/pag0000455

Birren, J. & Renner, V. (1981) Concepts and criteria of mental health and ageing. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. 51 (2), 242-254. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1111/j.1939-0025.1981.tb01370.x

Keyes, C. & Westerhof, G. (2012) Chronological and subjective age differences in nourishing mental health and major depressive episode. Ageing & Mental Health. 16 (1), 67–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/13607863.2011.596811

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