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Older people feel more youthful when they also feel in control

(Reuters Health) - Older adults may feel younger than their age on days when they feel most in control of their lives, a small study suggests.

People who believe they can influence the outcomes and events in their daily lives generally do feel a greater sense of control than those who feel more helpless, and previous research has linked a strong sense of control to better wellbeing, researchers note in Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.

Past research hasn’t offered a clear picture of how day-to-day variation in people’s sense of control might be tied to shifts in how they perceive their own age and wellbeing, however.

For the current study, researchers had 116 older adults, ages 60 to 90, and 107 younger adults, ages 18 to 36, fill out daily surveys for eight consecutive days. Researchers asked participants questions about their daily stresses, physical health, sense of control over their daily lives and how old they “felt.”

Among younger adults, feeling in more control on any given day didn’t appear to make them feel more youthful. But they did report feeling younger than their chronological age on days when they had low levels of stress and few or no health complaints.

With older adults, the picture was different. They typically felt about two to four years younger on days when they felt more in control than usual.

“Control beliefs can function as an important resource that supports individuals in pursuing their goals - believing that you can accomplish a task helps you to actually get the job done,” said study co-author Jennifer Bellingtier of Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany.

“In a similar manner, control could help to foster independence in the lives of older adults,” Bellingtier said by email. “I think it is possible that when older adults feel in control of their lives they may not feel as though their daily lives align with negative stereotypes about growing old, thus they may report feeling younger than their chronological age.”

When older adults feel younger than their age, it is typically associated with better mental, physical and cognitive health, study co-author Shevaun Neupert of North Carolina State University in Raleigh said by email.

The study wasn’t designed to test how shifts in feelings of control might impact physical or mental health.

Beyond its small size, one limitation of the study is that it cannot eliminate the possibility of reverse causality - that seniors might have felt more in control on days when they woke up feeling more youthful.

“The relationship between feeling younger and healthy aging should be viewed as a two-way street, meaning positive feeling and good health could reinforce each other,” said Dr. Guohua Li of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City.

“Older adults who feel in control and youthful are likely to be more physically and mentally active and more socially engaged, which could help them continue to flourish and function on the optimal level,” Li, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

SOURCE: Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, online March 15, 2019.