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"You're only as old as you feel": Self-perceptions of age, fears of aging, and life satisfaction from adolescence to old age.

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Abstract

We examined differences in subjective age identification from adolescence to old age and the relation between subjective age and fears about one's own aging and life satisfaction. Using a questionnaire format, 188 men and women from 14 to 83 years of age made judgments about how old they felt, looked, acted, and desired to be. Respondents also answered questions about their personal fears of aging and present life satisfaction. Results revealed that individuals in their teens held older subjective age identities, whereas during the early adult years, individuals maintained same age identities. Across the middle and later adult years, individuals reported younger age identities, and women experienced younger age identities than men across these adults years. Results also revealed that discrepancies between subjective and actual age were associated with personal fears of aging and life satisfaction, especially in younger men and women.
•sychology
and
Aging
989.
Vol/4,
No.
1,73-78
Ccpyrighi
1989
by the
American
Psychological
Association, Inc.
0882-7974/89/500.75
"You're
Only
as Old as You
Feel":
Self-Perceptions
of
Age,
Fears
of
Aging,
and
Life
Satisfaction
From
Adolescence
to Old Age
Joann
M.
Montepare
and
Margie
E.
Lachman
Brandeis
University
We
examined
differences
in
subjective
age
identification
from
adolescence
to old age and the
relation
between subjective
age and
fears
about
one's
own
aging
and
life
satisfaction.
Using
a
questionnaire
format,
188 men and
women
from
14 to 83
years
of age
made judgments about
how old
they
felt,
looked,
acted,
and
desired
to be.
Respondents also answered
questions
about their personal
fears
of
aging
and
present
life
satisfaction. Results revealed
that
individuals
in
their teens held older subjective
age
identities, whereas during
the
early adult years, individuals
maintained
same
age
identities.
Across
the
middle
and
later
adult
years,
individuals
reported
younger
age
identities,
and
women
experienced younger
age
identities than
men
across
these adults years. Results also revealed
that
discrepancies
between subjective
and
actual
age
were
associated
with
personal
fears
of
aging
and
life
satisfaction,
especially
in
younger
men and
women.
Considerable research
in the
aging
field has
demonstrated
that many adults over
age 60
maintain subjective
age
identities
(e.g.,
how old one
feels)
that
are
younger than their actual
age
(Baum
&
Boxley,
1983;
Kastenbaum,
Derbin, Sabatini,
& Am,
1972;
Osteen
&
Best, 1985; Peters,
1971;
Zola,
1962).
Consis-
tent with
the
popular
view
that "you're
only
as old as you
feel,"
there
is
evidence
that
these self-conceptions
of age may be
better
predictors
of
aging
adults'
psychological
and
physical
function-
ing
than
is
their chronological
age
(Birren
&
Cunningham,
1985;
George,
Mutran,
&
Pennypacker,
1980; Neugarten
&
Hagestad, 1976;
Nuttall,
1972).
Although
self-perceptions
of
age
have been
widely
studied
in
older adults, little
is
known
about
how or
whether these
views
change
or
differ
across
the
life
span.
Identifying
developmental
patterns
in
subjective
age
perceptions
is
important
in
aging research because
it is
unclear
whether older
adults'
age
perceptions
reflect
stable
self-views
or
changes
in
self-perceptions
that
accompany
life-course
transi-
tions
and
aging.
As
such,
one
goal
of the
present investigation
was
to
extend
past
research
by
examining subjective
age
across
a
wider developmental
age
range than
has
previously been
studied.
In
one of the few
studies
on
subjective
age
with multiple
age
groups
(20-69
years), Kastenbaum
et
al.
(1972)
reported that
all
groups held
subjective
age
identities that
were
younger
than
their
actual age,
and the
discrepancy between actual
and
subjec-
Portions
of
this
article
were presented
at the
39th meeting
of the
Ger-
ontological
Society
of
America, Chicago, November
1986,
and at the
biennial
meeting
of the
Society
for
Research
in
Child Development,
Detroit,
April 1983.
The
authors
would like
to
thank Suzanne
Weaver,
who
assisted
in the
coding
of the
data,
and
Fran
Pratt,
who
helped
in
obtaining
the
high
school students surveyed
in the
present
study.
In
addition,
we are
grate-
ful
to
Michael
Berbaum
for his
advice
on the
statistical analyses.
Correspondence
concerning this article should
be
addressed
to
Joann
M.
Montepare
or to
Margie
E.
Lachman, Department
of
Psychology,
Brandeis
University.
Waltham,
Massachusetts 02254.
live
age
increased markedly with
chronological
age. Closer
in-
spection
of the
Kastenbaum
et al.
data,
however,
revealed
that
differences
between actual
and
subjective
age
were
almost zero
in
the
youngest
age
groups, suggesting
that
the
early adult years
may
be a
transition period
from
same
age to
younger
age
iden-
tity.
Kastenbaum
et
al.,
noted that
the
apparent pervasiveness
of
a
younger
age
identity across
all age
groups
in
their sample
was
contrary
to
expectations that
the
youngest
age
group would
feel
and
desire
to be
more grown
up. The
experience
of an
older
age
identity
during adolescence would
be
consistent with
the
view
that this
life
stage marks
the
transition
from
childhood
to
adult-
hood,
during
which
time
individuals
strive toward
a
self-defini-
tion
as
independent, autonomous,
and
self-reliant
(Erikson,
1963;
Keniston,
1977).
To
test this possibility
and to
obtain
more comprehensive
data
on
developmental patterns
in age
identification,
the
present investigation examined
self-percep-
tions
of age in
adolescents
as
well
as in
adults.
Theorists
in the
aging
field
have suggested
that
the
tendency
of
aging adults
to
maintain younger subjective
age
identities
is
a
form
of
defensive
denial
by
which
they
can
disassociate
them-
selves
from
the
stigma
attached
to
growing
old
(Peters,
1971;
Ward,
1977).
Although
several researchers
have
sought
support
for
this hypothesis
by
examining
the
relation
between older
adults' subjective
age
identities
and the
negativity
of
their atti-
tudes
toward
the
elderly,
little
or no
relation
has
been
found
between
these perceptions (Keith,
1977;
Ward,
1977).
It
may
be
argued,
however,
that subjective
age and
denial
of
aging
are
more closely related
to
attitudes
or
fears
associated
with
one's
own
aging rather than
to
general attitudes toward
the
elderly
(Kafer,
Rakowski, Lachman,
&
Hickey,
1980).
In the
present
study,
fears
about
one's
own
aging were examined
in
relation
to
subjective
age
identification
to
test whether
feeling
younger
is
associated
with
greater
fears
of
getting older.
Denial
of
aging
has
been
viewed
as
adaptive
or
instrumental
in
promoting "successful" aging,
and it has
been shown that
better
psychological adjustment
and
health
are
positively
re-
73
74
JOANN
M.
MONTEPARE
AND
MARGIE
E.
LACHMAN
lated
to the
definition
of
oneself
as
younger than one's actual
age
(Bennett
&
Ekman,
1973;
Bultena
&
Powers, 1978; Linn
&
Hunter,
1979; Peters,
1971).
Another variable that
has
been
linked
to
successful aging
is
life
satisfaction
(Palmore,
1981).
In
fact,"
many consider
it
to
be the
primary ingredient
in
'the
good
life'
and the
ultimate criterion
of
successful
aging" (Palmore,
1981,
p.
95). Thus,
one
might expect
subjective
age
identity
to
be
positively
associated
with
life
satisfaction,
although
there
is
little
research
in
this area (Barak
&
Stern, 1986).
As
such,
the
present
study
also explored
the
relation between
subjective
age
identification
and
life
satisfaction.
In
light
of the
unanswered questions regarding subjective
age
identification,
the
present investigation sought
to
identify
(a)
patterns
of
subjective
age
identification
from
adolescence
through
old
age,
and (b) the
relation
between
individuals'
sub-
jective
age and
their personal
fears
about aging
and
their
life
satisfaction.
To
achieve
these goals,
a
questionnaire
was
admin-
istered
to
188
men and
women between
14
and 83
years
of
age.
It
was
expected that older adults
would
maintain
younger
age
identities
and
that
with
increases
in
adults' chronological
age
there
would
be
increases
in the
discrepancy between actual
and
subjective
age. Adolescents
were
also expected
to
experience
discrepancies between their
subjective
and
actual age.
Specifi-
cally,
it was
expected that
they
would
maintain older
age
identi-
ties.
On the
other hand, young adults
were
expected
to
maintain
same
age
identities.
On the
basis
of
existing
research
and
theory,
it
was
expected that adults
with
youthful
subjective
age
identi-
ties
would
have greater personal
fears
about aging
and
greater
life
satisfaction
than those
with
less
youthful
identities.
No
spe-
cific
hypotheses were formulated about
the
relations between
subjective
age,
fears
about aging,
and
life
satisfaction
for
youn-
ger
age
groups because
of the
lack
of
previous empirical
work
with
these
age
groups.
Method
Sample
A
total
of
188
individuals living
in the
suburbs
surrounding
Boston,
Massachusetts
were
surveyed.
Of
those
sampled,
81
were
men
(Af
age
=
29.74
years;
SO =
18.46
years;
range
=
14-78 years)
and 106
were
women
(Af
age =
36.06
years;
SD =
20.64
years;
range
=15-83
years).
Sampling
was
done mainly
on the
basis
of
convenience;
however,
care
was
taken
to
sample
individuals
across
age
from
similar
socioeconomic
and
educational
backgrounds
so
that
any
observed
differences
in age
perceptions
across
age
were
not
attributable
to
differences
in
these
back-
ground
variables.
The
questionnaires
were
administered
to
high
school
and
college students
in
classroom
settings
or
were
sent
through
the
cam-
pus
mail.
The
adults
in the
sample
were
obtained
mainly
from
an
adult
educational
workshop.
However,
questionnaires
were
also
sent
through
the
campus
mail
to
several
faculty
members
from
different
university
departments.
The
older
adults
in the
sample
were
obtained
primarily
through
local
senior
citizen
centers.
Directors
at the
participating
cen-
ters
distributed
the
questionnaires
to the
older
adults,
who
were allowed
to
take
them
home
and
return
them when they
had
been
completed.
Of
the 298
questionnaires
that
were
distributed,
63%
(188)
were
completed
and
returned.
Questionnaire
The
questionnaire
assessed
several
background
characteristics,
sub-
jective
age
identity, fears
about
one's
own
aging,
and
present
life satisfac-
tion.
To
ensure
anonymity
and
confidentiality,
the
questionnaires
were
identified
with
code
numbers.
Subjective
age
identity.
Subjective
age
identity
was
assessed
using
a
format
similar
to the one
used
by
Kastenbaum
et
al,
(1972).
More
specifically,
respondents
were
asked
to
specify,
in
years,
the age
that
most
closely
corresponded
to (a) the way
they
felt,
(b) the way
they
looked,
(c)
the age of the
person
whom
their
interests
and
activities were
most
like,
and (d) the age
that they would like
to be if
they
could pick
out
their
age
right
now.
Cronbach's
alphas
for
male
and
female
respondents
indicated
that
the
four subjective
age
measures
could
be
combined
into
a
single
index
(a
=
.76 and
.72,
respectively).
Thus,
a
subjective
age
index
score
was
computed
for
each
respondent
by
averaging
across
each
respondent's
four subjective
age
estimates.
Fears
about one's
own
aging. Using
5-point
scales
ranging from
strongly
disagree
(1)
and
strongly agree
(5),
respondents
indicated
their
agreement
with four
statements
expressing
anxieties
about
aging
se-
lected
from
the
Attitudes Toward
Own
Aging
scale
of the
Aging
Opinion
Survey
(Kafer
et
al.,
1980).
The
statements
were
those
that
had the
high-
est
factor
loadings
on the
originally
reported
version
of
this
scale
and
included
the
following:
(a) I
always
dreaded
the day 1
would
look
in the
mirror
and find a
grey hair,
(b) I
fear
that
when
I'm
older
all
my
friends
will
be
gone,
(c) The
thought
of
outliving
my
spouse
frightens
me, and
(d)
The
older
I
become,
the
more
anxious
I
am
about
the
future.
For
each
respondent,
a
composite
score
was
computed
by
averaging
across
responses
to the
four
items.
Composite
scores
had
moderate
reliability
for
male
and
female
respondents
(a = .60 and
.52,
respectively)
and
ranged from
1 to 5,
with
higher
scores
representing
greater
fears
of
aging.
Life
satisfaction.
Using
the
Cantril
Self-Anchoring
Ladder
(Cantril,
1965),
respondents
rated
how
they
felt
about
their
lives
at the
present
time.
Scale
values
ranged
from worst
possible
life
(1) to
best
possible
life
(10).
Results
Patterns
of
Subjective
Age
Identification
As
a first
step
in
ascertaining
the
pattern
of
subjective
age
identification
from
adolescence
to old
age,
men's
and
women's
subjective
age
index
scores were regressed
on
their
actual
age
scores.
The
resultant equation
was
then used
to
estimate
men's
and
women's
subjective
age
identities across 5-year
intervals.'
To
determine
if the age
estimates represented same,
younger,
or
older
age
identities, estimates along
the
regression
line
were
compared
with
points along
a
line representing
no
discrepan-
cies between subjective
and
actual age.
If
estimates along
the
regression
line
crossed points
along
the
comparison
line,
the
respondents'
age
identities were same
age
identities (i.e.,
subjec-
tive
age was
equal
to
actual age).
If the
estimates
fell
below
the
comparison line,
the
respondents'
age
identities were younger
age
identities (i.e.,
subjective
age was
less than actual age).
Fi-
nally,
if the
estimates
fell
above
the
comparison
line,
the
respon-
dents'
age
identities were older
age
identities (i.e., subjective
age
was
greater than actual age). Figure
1
depicts
the
observed pat-
terns
of
subjective
age
identities
for men and
women.
As
pre-
dicted,
individuals
in
their teens held older
age
identities,
whereas those
in the
early adult years maintained same
age
identities. Also
as
predicted,
not
only
were younger
age
identi-
ties maintained
by
individuals across
the
adults years,
but
also
1
The regression
equation
was y =
9.24
4-
.62X,
for
men,
and Y =
12.26
+
.46*,
for
women.
SUBJECTIVE
AGE
IDENTIFICATION
75
discrepancies between actual
and
subjective
age
became more
pronounced
with advancing chronological
age.2
To
assess possible
sex
differences
in
subjective age,
we
com-
pared
the
slopes
of the
regression lines
for men and
women.
This revealed that
the
slope
of the
regression line
for men was
significantly
steeper than that
for
women,
f(183)
=
2.68,
p <
.001.
This
finding
indicates that with increasing chronological
age,
women experience greater discrepancies between
their
ac-
tual
and
subjective
age
than
do
their male peers,
a finding
con-
sistent with other research
on sex
differences
in
subjective
age
identification
(Linn
&
Hunter,
1979;
Streib
&
Schneider,
1971;
Ward,
1977).
Relation
Between
Subjective
Age
Identification,
Fears
About
Own
Aging,
and
Life
Satisfaction
To
assess
the
relation between respondents' actual
and
subjec-
tive
ages
and
their personal
fears
of
aging
and
life
satisfaction,
a
series
of
multiple regression analyses with backward elimina-
tion
were
performed.
In
these
analyses,
respondents' actual
age
and
subjective
age
index scores,
as
well
as
their interaction,
were
entered
as
predictors
of
respondents'
fears
of
aging
and
life
satis-
faction
scores. Separate analyses were
performed
for men and
women.
As
indicated
in
Table
1,
actual age, subjective age,
and
their
interaction, emerged
as
significant
predictors
of
fears
of
aging
for
both
men and
women.
To
elucidate
the
interaction
effects,
estimates
of
men's
and
women's
fears
of
aging scores
were
plot-
ted for
three
different
actual
and
subjective
age
values
and are
illustrated
in
Figure
2.
In
interpreting Figure
2
(and subsequent
figures),
several
points should
be
kept
in
mind.
First,
each
sub-
jective
age
value holds
a
different
meaning
for
each actual
age
value.
For
example,
a
subjective
age of 20
represents same
age
identities
for
20-year-old
respondents, whereas
the
same subjec-
tive
age
value indicates younger
age
identities
for 40- or
60-year-
old
respondents. Second,
for
illustration purposes,
the
same
ac-
tual
and
subjective
age
values
(20,40,
and 60
years)
were
used
to
plot
the
pattern
of
effects
revealed
by the
regression
equations,
even
though
not all of
these values were actually
ob-
tained
in the
sample
data.
For
instance, although many
20-year-
old
respondents held
subjective
ages that were several years
older
than their actual age, none reported
a
subjective
age of 60.
AGE
IDENTITY
REGRESSION
LINE
SAME-AGE
IDENTITY
COHPARISION
LINE
15
35 45
55
(5 75 85
ACTUAL
AGE
Figure
1. Age
identities
for men and
women
across
the
life
span.
Table
1
Results
of
Regression
Analyses
With
Backward
Elimination
Predicting
Men's
and
Women's
Fears
of
Aging
and
Life
Satisfaction
From
Their
Actual
Age,
Subjective
Age,
and
the
Interaction
of
Actual
and
Subjective
Age
Variable
P<
Fear
of
aging
(men)
Actual
age
Subjective
age
Interaction
F(3,
77)
=
4.
Fear
of
aging
(women)
Actual
age
Subjective
age
Interaction
F(3,
102)
= 6
Life
satisfaction
(men)
Subjective
age
Interaction
1.70
2.86
-3.40
39,p<.007,/?2=.l5
1.80
2.22
-1.99
.21,p<.0006,J?2
=
.15
2.95
-2.66
.09
.005
.001
.07
.03
.05
.004
.009
F(2,
78) =
4.75,
p <
.01,
R2
=
.11
Life
satisfaction
(women)
Actual
age
Subjective
age
-2.40
3.17
.02
.002
F(2,
102)
=
5.03,
p <
.008,
R* - .09
Counter
to
prediction,
little
relation
was
found
between
sub-
jective
age and
fears
of
aging
for
older
men and
women. How-
ever,
subjective
age was
related
to
younger individuals'
fears
of
aging:
Those
with
the
oldest
age
identities
had the
least personal
fears
of
aging
(see Figure
2).
Regression
analyses predicting men's
life
satisfaction
re-
vealed
that subjective
age and the
interaction between
actual
and
subjective
age
were
significant
predictors (see Table
1).
Counter
to
prediction, subjective
age was not
strongly related
to
older men's
life
satisfaction.
It
was,
however,
related
to
life
satisfaction
for
younger men: Those
with
the
oldest
age
identi-
ties
reported
the
greatest
life
satisfaction (see Figure
3).
Regression
analyses predicting women's
life
satisfaction
re-
vealed
that actual
age and
subjective age,
but not
their
interac-
tion,
were
significant
predictors (see Table
I).
Consistent
with
the
relation between subjective
age and
life
satisfaction
found
for
younger
men, younger women with
the
oldest
age
identities
reported
the
greatest
life
satisfaction.
A
similar relation
was
found
for
older women, although
the
inverse
had
been pre-
dicted. Those older women with younger
age
identities
had the
lowest
levels
of
satisfaction. Finally, younger women reported
greater
life
satisfaction than
did
older women.
2
The
patterns
of
same,
older,
and
younger
age
identities
determined
by
comparing
estimates
along
the
regression
to
points
on the
compari-
son
line
were
statistically
confirmed
by
computing
95%
confidence
in-
tervals
around
the
regression
lines
for men and
women.
76
JOANN
M.
MONTEPARE
AND
MARGIE
E.
LACHMAN
GREATEST
FEARS
LEAST
FEARS
GREATEST
FEARS
•SAME
AGE
IDENTITY
•OLDER
AGE
IDENTITY
AYOUNGER
AGE
IDENTITY
MEN'S
ACTUAL
AGE
LEAST
FEARS
WOMEN'S
ACTUAL
AGE
^SUBJECTIVE
AGE - 20
SUBJECTIVE
AGE 40
SUBJECTIVE
AGE - 60
SAME
AGE
IDENTITY
OLDER
AGE
IDENTITY
A
YOUNGER
AGE
IDENTITY
ASUBJECTIVE
AGE - 20
SUBJECTIVE
AGE - 40
SUBJECTIVE
AGE - 60
Figure
2.
Relation
between
men's