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LIFEMAG Original

How you are not your age

by Sasha Crowe Published on 26th Jun 2015

by Sasha Crowe Published on 26th June 2015

When asked our age, the answer given will almost certainly be our chronological age; the time we have lived since birth, measured in years and months. So, for example, when someone says they are 35 years old, they ultimately mean a number determined by the amount of complete revolutions the earth has made around the sun in their lifetime. Technically they are somewhere in between 35 and 36 years old. Nonetheless, this age measure is what’s used to determine things like when we should vote, get a driver’s license, marry, retire, and so on.

Does this arguably arbitrary number, that has been more or less universally established as the measure of life, the best metric to determine physical and mental well-being? Could our social expectations for certain age groups pull people into an age they may not necessarily be ready or capable for?

Aging researchers are faced with the difficult task of distinguishing between what is a result from age versus what is a result from time. Such as, for example, the respective health found in a specific population cohort coming from a combination of cultural shifts in behavior, natural biological occurrences and medical improvements. A 35 year old may perform better than a 50 year old in an experiment, but that performance could be a result of other factors besides age. This age-time dilemma is so tightly fused together that it makes separating the two variables from each other a somewhat daunting task. However, doing so could have major positive health implications, since by creating new, respectful attitudes toward aging, we as a species would be more better adept at handling our age.

Methods of assessing age

There are currently many different proposed methods to assess quality of life, with some more precise than others. There’s subjective age, which is found by answering the question ‘how old do you feel’. While this method seems rather inaccurate, there’s a lot to be said for the state of a culture when a 25 year old feels like a 45 year old. Subjective age changes with mood, so it’s possible to take an average over a course of several days to find out what age is most predominant.

Biological age is measured through an individual’s development of biomarkers. Given the complex nature behind the mechanisms of the human body, so far there are no reliable physiological markers that can be used to predict age; a study by Pollock et al. suggests that ‘the relationship between human aging and physiological function is highly individualistic and modified by inactivity’. Currently, doctors use stress tests to measure cardiorespiratory fitness. This involves the costly and expensive processes involved in taking someone’s blood pressure, kidney excretion rates, muscle mass, heart rate & oxygen absorption rates when pushed to exhaustion on a treadmill.

Taking biological age a step further, norwegian researchers led by Bjarne M.Nes have developed a test to determine fitness age; an accurate estimation of cardiorespiratory fitness by simply using data based on age, sex, body mass index, resting heart rate and how often an individual exercises. This gives a good insight into a person’s overall state of health, meaning an active 60 year old could have a better fitness age then a sedentary 30 year old.

Psychological age focuses more an individual’s life experience, logic level, and emotional maturity and is generally broken down into two parts: mental age and emotional age. Mental age refers to cognitive function, essentially one’s ability for learning and memory. It is a strongly held belief that when someone walks into a room and forgets what they were looking for, it’s a sign they are getting older and losing their memory. The ability to remember is affected by how much cognitive load the brain has to cope with, so it could be that too much stress and anxiety would lead to occasional bouts of forgetfulness, especially when that information is not so important. Also, since the brain needs oxygen to function, exercise can also help against premature memory deterioration by improving aerobic capacity (a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen taken in during exercise).

Emotional age refers to how well an individual manages their emotions. This is something that tends to improve with age, as with time people's ability how to control negative emotions becomes more adept. According to an article by Susan Whitbourne, a professor of psychology  at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “We know from extensive studies in the psychology of aging that older adults are truly ‘wiser’, in that they can better control their temper, take negative situations and spin them in a positive light, and get along more easily with other people, even people they don’t particularly like.” Hence, making it possible for some younger people to have a higher psychological age than that of some older people.

Instead of chronological age it has been proposed to use Functional age, which is something of a cross between biological age and psychological age. This is, however, a rather hard measure to use, as it determines to measure an individual in terms of their functioning. Despite it’s high credibility, due to the consecutive, extensive testing involved, this measure is currently rather impractical for widespread use.

Healthy Life Extension

Concentrating attention on chronological age can be rather limiting and discouraging. However, when looking at age, not as years completed from birth, but as potential time still left available, it’s literally possible to ‘become younger’ when efforts to improve health extend lifespan. This can be seen to take a lot of the negative focus away from ageing, and instead allows for a more positive outlook by essentially focusing on improving the quality of and extending the years to come. This in turn holds high societal implications since chronological age can no longer limit an individual's potential by defining what they should be doing at what age. As a consequence, it would no longer make sense to call people ‘old’ when they can still lead productive, fulfilling, and impactful lives. By shifting perspectives on ageing, it would pave the way for more encouraging and appreciative attitudes towards prolonging healthy lifespan.