Elderly woman who feels older than she is sitting on a couch

Feeling Old Can Make You Older

Feeling Old Can Make You Older

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

Do you look forward to your "golden years" with excitement and possibility…or does the thought of them send you spiraling into a sense of dread? Turns out that your perception of aging can have a major impact on your body's response to stress…making you pretty much the opposite of "youthful and carefree!" A recent study from The Journals of Gerontology found a correlation between perceived age and physical manifestations of stress.

In a 100-day study of 103 adults ranging from the ages of 52-88, participants were asked to record their self-perceptions of aging, along with their stress and physical health, reporting a variety of symptoms that included fatigue, aches, pains, shortness of breath and upset stomach.

The results of the survey found that higher perceived stress was linked to more physical health symptoms and higher perceived age (aka "feeling old"), while those who had positive self-perceptions of aging were less impacted by stress overall. In other words, those who had a positive outlook on aging were less likely to feel the negative physical impact of stress.

The authors concluded that there is a significant link between perceived aging and impact of stress, and that positive self-perceptions were key in managing stress, noting, "Identifying ways to facilitate resolution has considerable value for mitigating the effects of everyday stress on both daily and long-term health and well-being."

Stress and aging: The ripple effect

There are plenty of external factors throughout adult life that can affect self-perceptions of aging as you reach retirement age and beyond. While you may be past work-related stress, the worries of maintaining financial security and social connections can become more prevalent as you move from middle age to old age.

Combine that with daily stress and there's no doubt there may be days where you start to feel less like a spring chicken than you used to. Advice to "Just relax" or, "Calm down, it's going to be fine," is always easier said than done.

Ensure that the normal stress of daily life doesn't compound into chronic stress. This vicious cycle can affect cognitive performance prematurely and keep you from being at your best. This can also lead to being worried about aging, which will again perpetuate the cycle and self-fulfilling prophecy.

In fact, in another study of a group of 127 adults, subjects were given daily surveys, self-reporting on aging perceptions, perceived health and perceived stress for a period of 14 days. Their key findings concluded days of worse perceived health coincided with higher perceived stress, finding a strong association between high stress and feeling older.

What causes you to age quickly?

Certain lifestyle factors can cause premature aging, including smoking, too much unprotected sun exposure, a poor diet and exercise regimen, and bad sleep habits, among a non-exhaustive list. Chief among these factors, however, is stress.

Stress unchecked can not only age you prematurely, but can also lead to other health concerns over time. Why? Being in a chronic state of anxiety causes oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, which impacts your immune system, making it easier to get sick.

In fact, a study among Japanese eldercare workers found a correlation between perceived stress and lower back pain. The amount of stress they were experiencing appeared to directly impact their physical pain, causing their bodies to be impacted at a rate higher than if they weren't reporting the same levels of stress.

Another study found that chronic psychological stress is connected to increased risks of certain kinds of cancer and may play a role in aging at the cellular level. Based on the results of nine review papers and 26 case-control studies, the authors concluded that psychosocial stress may be considered a risk factor for certain types of cancer and play a key role in long-term effects on the cellular aging process.

How do I stop feeling old?

It turns out that the saying, "Time and tide wait for no man" rings true when we talk about aging. In fact, an estimated 10-20% of adults age 65 and older experience age-related cognitive decline, characterized by gradual decline in cognitive function, where mental tasks may take longer to complete, and memory and attention aren't as sharp as they used to be.

So, yes, we all age as a part of life, but we do get a say in how we age. Maintaining healthy habits is key to aging well and keeping your brain youthful. This includes eating well, getting optimal sleep, and, perhaps most importantly, avoiding situations that may be stressful or learning to manage stress in a healthy way.

Plus, there are some healthy benefits beyond feeling younger and aging slower! There's even been evidence that by properly managing stress, you can "un-gray" your hair. Eliminating stress was found to revert old hair to its younger pigmented state in preclinical research, suggesting that healthy stress management may help restore that youthful shade and luster to your hair that you might be coveting from your younger self!

If you're worried about aging, remember that keeping up a positive mindset can have a major impact. The best thing you can do is mitigate stress so that it doesn't control your life.

Stress management checklist

Since stress and aging are so linked, it's no surprise that if you want to feel young for the long run, it all starts with stress management.

  • Nutrition and diet

    Nutrition is a key component of staying healthy. Try and focus on nourishing, whole foods and limit sugary junk foods. We like the Mediterranean diet, which has been linked to longevity properties and reduced risk of major cardiovascular events.

  • 3 nutrients for stress relief

    To keep stress at bay, it's key to manage your levels of cortisol, one of the stress hormones associated with the fight or flight response. Some nutrients that can help support healthy cortisol levels include:

    • Ashwagandha

      —Used for centuries in traditional Indian health regimens, this herb has a glowing reputation for balancing cortisol levels and supporting the stress response, and may even have anti-aging properties, among other benefits.
    • L-theanine

      —This powerhouse of an amino acid is found in green tea and has been touted for its impacts on positive mood, mental clarity, and healthy cortisol and stress levels.
    • Lemon balm

      —Much like L-theanine, this calming herb that comes from the mint family is beneficial for keeping your calm up and your stress down.
  • Sleep

    Stress isn't the only culprit that can affect how you age—sleep is an important factor as well, with one study finding that those who have good sleep patterns tend to feel younger, while those who don't get enough ZZZs may feel older than they are. To keep the stress (and the stress lines) away, follow the CDC's recommended guidance and try to aim for 7-8 hours of quality sleep to feel well rested and youthful.

  • Exercise

    There's no doubt that mental health and physical health are linked. Implementing movement and mindful exercise can help keep both your body and mind healthy for the long haul.

  • Self-care

    Self-care is crucial in keeping stress at the door and can look different for everyone. It might mean seeking out social support and spending time with loved ones for some. For others, it may mean meditating when you wake up or before you go to bed.

  • If you're feeling too overwhelmed and can't keep stressors at bay, reach out to your health care professional for guidance. And remember, age really is just a number!


    About Our Story Sources

    The Life Extension Health News team delivers accurate information about vitamins, nutrition and aging. Our stories rely on multiple, authoritative sources and experts. We keep our content accurate and trustworthy, by submitting it to a medical reviewer.