How old do you feel? A discussion based on longitudinal data

0 0 625


“[A] reporter said to me, kindly, ‘Oh, you don’t look 40.’ And I said, just off the top of my head, ‘This is what 40 looks like…” (Steinem, 1998). We make assumptions about age, and those assumptions affect how we feel, think, and act toward others. When someone doesn’t match our idea of what a particular age should look like, it’s easier for us to mentally change the age of the person than it is to change our assumptions about what age they are.

But what happens when we’re talking about ourselves? I know my chronological age is 55. My driver’s license says so. What if my own behaviors and attitudes don’t match the behaviors and attitudes I think a 55-year-old should do and have? What if I thought my behavior and attitudes better matched what I think is true of a 40-year-old?  Perhaps I’d say, “Well, I’m 55, but I feel 40.”

A few years ago, an 80-year-old friend said to me some version of this, “My body can’t do as much as it used to, but cognitively, I feel no different than I did when I was in my 20s.” (She’s a research psychologist. I’m certain she said cognitively.) At the time of our conversation, I was knocking on the door of my fifth decade, and I totally got what she was saying. It may because I remember my 20s a little too well, but I put my felt age somewhere in my 30s.

What do the data say? This is an interesting study for the Intro Psych development chapter or the older adulthood section of a Lifespan course. It’s a very nice illustration of using longitudinal data to reveal cohort effects.

“The German Ageing Survey is a nationwide, cross-sequential study of individuals in their second half of life (40–85 years at their first measurement occasions). The first study sample was drawn in 1996, and individuals were reassessed in 2002, 2008, 2011, 2014, 2017, and 2020. Additional samples were drawn in 2002, 2008, and 2014 and reassessed at later measurement occasions” (Wettstein et al., 2023). (The study is freely available.)

The survey question they were interested in for this study was “How old do you feel?” It’s a simple question, but the answer to it says oodles.

Today’s older German adults report feeling younger than previous generations of older adults. For example, when people born between 1911 and 1935 turned 67, they reported, on average, that they felt approximately 59 (eight years younger). When people born between 1936 and 1951 turned 67, they reported, on average, that they felt approximately 54 (13 years younger). And, lastly, when people born between 1952 and 1974 turned 67, they reported, again on average, that they felt approximately 50 (17 years younger). Just as interestingly, the ages the survey participants reported feeling became less and less variable the older they got. And what variability there is decreased with each cohort (Wettstein et al., 2023).

From the article, show your students Figure 1. It’s a fun graph, but you’ll need to take a few minutes to walk your students what the graph is depicting.


Discussion questions

If we surveyed 40- to 85-year-olds in your community about the age they felt, would you expect the data to look similar to the German data? Why or why not?

What do you think the data would look like if we asked 13- to 25-year-olds? Explain.

What biological, psychological, social, and cultural factors might influence how old a person feels?

What research could we do to find out if any of those factors do indeed affect how old a person feels?



Steinem, G. (1998, April 6). 30th Anniversary Issue / Gloria Steinem: First feminist. New York Magazine.

Wettstein, M., Wahl, H.-W., Drewelies, J., Wurm, S., Huxhold, O., Ram, N., & Gerstorf, D. (2023). Younger than ever? Subjective age is becoming younger and remains more stable in middle-age and older adults today. Psychological Science, 095679762311645.


Tags (1)
About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.