Research on the topic of subjective age, carried out with the help of several hundred participants that took part in the study, gives insight on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on an individual’s feeling of age and offers suggestions on how to successfully face the prospect of ageing.
What is Subjective Age?
Subjective age is an indicator of how old a person feels, looks and behaves, regardless of their actual chronological age1. Most people don’t feel age in accordance to their chronological age, but instead feel younger or older than they actually are. It is this feeling of subjective age that significantly impacts an individual’s physical and mental health and their behaviour. In today’s day and age, we are overly focused on chronological age while everyday experiences suggest that we don’t experience ageing in the same way as others, and thus some 60-year-olds feel and look much younger than they are while other 60-year-olds feel their age keenly, or even feel older than they truly are.
Many feel younger or older then they truly are. People younger than 20 often feel older, while people over 20 mostly perceive themselves as younger. People over 30 feel younger, with the difference between subjective and chronological age growing over time to 12-15 years. Percentage-wise, the discrepancy between chronological and subjective age increases with age before stagnating at around 40 years of age, when participants mostly feel 15% younger than their actual, chronological age1,2.
Research on the topic of subjective age looks at its connection to multiple developmental factors, health and environmental influences3. There have been few studies of subjective age and felt age carried out in Croatia. In addition, the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic on different aspects of subjective age is insufficiently investigated in general, let alone in the country, which is additional motivation for this study.
What did the study look like?
Research was conducted through an online survey from 5th to 15th February 2021. Participants were sent a link from which they accessed the online questionnaire, which they later shared to friends, family, and acquaintances. The questionnaire was also available on the website of Zdravi grad Poreč and city news websites. Participation in the study was anonymous and voluntary for all participants.
The questionnaire covered multiple aspects of subjective age1. Comparative age was assessed by asking participants to compare themselves with others in their age range (“much younger”, “younger”, “same”, “older”, “much older”). The feeling of age was measured with the question: “How old do you feel?”, with the participants’ answer being numerical, expressed in years. Cognitive age was based on four dimensions of subjective perception of age – physical appearance, behaviour, feeling, and interests. Ideal age was assessed with the question: “How old do you most want to be?”.
Subjective age was measured in a sample of 705 people that took part in the study, with 575 female (81,6%) and 130 male (18,4%) participants. Most of the participants are residents of Poreč (37,9%) and surrounding areas (13%), after which are residents of Rijeka, Zagreb, and cities in Istria. A smaller percentage of participants are people from other parts of Croatia.
In regards to age, participants aged between 15 to 85 years took part in the study, with the highest frequency of participants being in the range of 48 to 59 years. The reason for that being that in their thirties, and afterwards, individuals show a consistent tendency towards a feeling of younger subjective age2. The effect of the pandemic is easier to notice, if it does exist, if we assume that the COVID-19 pandemic causes an older subjective age feeling.
In people between 18 and 30 the subjective feeling of age can be bidirectional, with young adults feeling 1 to 3 years younger or older than their chronological age.
What about the results?
The research results show that two thirds of the participants feel younger or even much younger in relation to their actual age. Every fifth participant feels their subjective age matches their chronological age, while only 6% of participants feel older than they actually are.
Participants report feeling younger than their peers in all aspects of subjective age, especially in appearance and behaviour, while to a lesser extent in interests.
The best indicator of subjective age was measured with a direct assessment of subjective age in numerical format. It was determined that people older than 30 report feeling younger, with every other person feeling up to 10-18% younger in relation to their chronological age. What this means is that a 40-year-old feels around 6 years younger, while a 70-year old feels on average 12 years younger than they are. On the other hand, there is a tendency among 20 to 29-year-olds to report an older subjective age feeling.
Questions of a particular importance proved to be open-ended questions, in which participants gave their personal opinion, reasons, and factors affecting their subjective feeling of age. The main reasons behind younger subjective age, as reported by our participants, are various activities, such as reading, creating, physical activities, walking. They also emphasise the importance of family, good relations with others, maintaining close relationships and taking care of themselves.
When asked if the pandemic affects their subjective age, more than half of the participants (58,2%) report not feeling an effect of the pandemic on subjective age, citing increased recreation, time spent with family, and various activities and hobbies they didn’t have time for before as an explanation.
Every fifth participant said the pandemic has a direct effect on their feeling of age, with lack of exercise and physical activity paired with lack of social contact, in general and with friends, unfavourable economic situation, and illness as the main factors behind their feeling of older subjective age.
Research results shows that the COVID-19 pandemic affects the subjective age of individuals in various ways. The pandemic can emphasise an already existing subjective feeling of age. Those who feel young can feel even younger, missing out on the student lifestyle and adopting childhood habits, spending more time with their family and less with their peers and friends. Young people have no time or energy to plan for the future because the present situation of uncertainty and crisis already takes up so much space in their thoughts. On the other hand, individuals can feel older than they usually do due to less physical activity, social interaction, and the stress caused by the pandemic.
The factors of general health, intensity of social interaction and physical activity plus general life satisfaction, all affecting the feeling of subjective age, proved to be under the influence of the pandemic as well, connecting the two together.
Finally, participants answered the open-ended question “The years pass. I…”. This question was an opportunity for people to express their attitudes towards ageing and personal life philosophies. Most participants’ answers showcased a positive energy and attitude towards ageing.
In the end
There are many reasons why subjective age reveals so much about people and why it’s important to know how people feel and how old they perceive themselves. Adults and older adults, who feel younger than their chronological age, feel heathier, more resistant and feel greater satisfaction in life5. Older subjective age is, on the other hand, connected to illness, risk of depression and lesser quality of life.
The pandemic will surely leave a big mark on the physical and mental health of many people, and thus on their feeling of subjective age as well. Despite the pandemic, the results of this study confirm previous research findings which state that people over 30 often feel younger than their chronological age1,3. Accordingly, two thirds of the participants feel around 10% to 18% younger than their chronological age. Even youth can see there are things to look forward to waiting in their future, that years are not something to be afraid of but use well instead.
The participants, residents of Poreč, Istria and Croatia, are facing many challenges brought on by the pandemic: health-related worry, change in various activities, studying, adapting to change, and social contact.
Every individual has unique experiences and circumstances that affect their feeling of age. “We are here, living and adapting”, say the citizens. It’s on every one of us to discover how to do it, how to survive and carry their years well.
Maja Jugovac, student of psychology, FFRI
Gordana Vorkapić Jugovac, psychologist
|1||Uotinen, V. (2005). I’m as old as I feel. Subjective age in Finnish adults. Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä Studies in Education, Psychology and Social Research.|
|2||Zupančič, M., Colnerič, B. i Horvat, M. (2011). Subjective age over the adult lifespan. Suvremena psihologija, 14 (2), 150-151.|
|3||Kaliterna, Lj. (1998). Jesmo li stari koliko imamo godina ili koliko se starima osjećamo?. Društvena istraživanja: časopis za opća društvena pitanja, Vol. 7, No.6 (38),/td>|
|4||Barak, B. i Stern, B. (1986). Subjective age correlates: a research note. The Gerontologist, 26(5): 571-578|
|5||Montepare, J.M. i Lachman, M.E. (1989). “You are only as old as you feel”: Self-perceptions of age, fears of aging, and life satisfaction from adolescence to old age. Psychology & Aging, 4, 73-78.|