How old do you feel?

"How old would you be if you didn't know how old you was?" - Satchel Paige

When someone asks you how old you are, you probably do not have to think about it for too long. The number just shoots out of your mouth. But is that how old you really feel? And is that your true age?? What’s in an age? Do you really identify yourself with that number?

What we think of when we shout out (or sometimes quietly whisper) that number is just our Chronological Age. Its simple mathematics. It is the number of times our planet has gone around the sun since our birth. But does that say anything about us at all? If you agree with the concept of life stages (or have gone through the blobs of six) then you might say, sure, a lot can be deduced by it. Unquestionably, there are repeating patterns and certain expectations at every age and stage. Nevertheless most probably there are parts of you that fit that pattern while other parts that don’t. So, why is that?

The reason is that age is not simply a number. Your true age, also sometimes referred to as functional age, is actually a complex combination of at least 4 different ages.

Mental Age

Your mental age is not just about how intelligent you are or about how much you know and what your IQ is. On the internet you can find umpteen intellegence tests that claim to measure your mental intelligence and sometimes even your age. Just after a few questions they stamp you with with an IQ number and mental age. More serious IQ tests claim to measure your knowledge, memory and speed in different areas and thus deterime how your performance deviates from the average performance of others at the same age. If your mental age is the same as your chronological age, you get an IQ score of 100.

But, mental age is much more than an IQ number. Most of these tests fail at measuring your emotional intelligence (EQ). Thus, a 4 year old may have the IQ of a 7 year old, but might have an emotional age of 3 years. You may be an adult, but might ‘behave’ like a teenager. On the other hand, life-changing events may have made you more mature for your age. Thus a teenage mother may have learned mental skills that make her stand apart from others her age. Death or sickness in the family very often lead to quick “mental aging”. As you can imagine, this kind of age is very difficult to measure and would require several sessions with psychologists to give it a number, if it is possible to do that at all.StockSnap_X2Q7LBUF6U (800 x 600)

Standard mental aging can be controlled and it is possible to even make a turn for better through regular physical exercise. As the famous saying goes “Mens sana in corpore sano“, a healthy mind in a healthy body.

Biological Age

Biological Age is assessed by measuring the vital functions of the physical body. It describes where you are relative to the maximum number of possible life-years. Simple biomarkers are obvious changes to physical appearance such as gray hair or wrinkled skin. Other more critical biomarkers are hidden, such as blood pressure, or the functioning of the body’s organs and cardiovascular or respiratory system. Some even make use of ‘loss of height’, that occurs due to loss of bone density as a measure of biological age (after 40 you can lose up to half an inch every 10 years).

Telomeres, which affect how quickly cells age and die by controlling how chromosome ends deteriorate or fuse with other chromosomes, play a huge role in biological aging. Telomere shortening is involved in all aspects of the aging process on a cellular level. The older you are the shorter is the total length of the telomeres and thus less protection for the chromosomes. This causes an increased affinity to diseases and neurodegenerative disorders, and possibly early death. But, with a healthy diet and regular exercise it is possible to maintain telomere length and thus influence the biological aging process.

Genes also play a role in biological aging. Some families have a long history of persons living long lives as compared to other families. Those with these ‘lucky genes’ seem to stay biologically fit and accomplish feats at even a very old age. One example is Fauja Singh who completed the marathon at the chronological age of 101. Medical tests done when he was 99 years old concluded that he had a biological age of a 40 year old. Have a look at him running in the video below:

Sociocultural Age

Sociocultural age refers to the set of roles you play in relation to other members of the society and culture you live in. Is the role ‘normal’ for your chronological age, i.e., are you acting according to the expectation of the culture or society you are in? Or are you breaking expectations and taking on roles typical of other stages (or blobs)?

Social roles can be seen as family or work related roles that are typically adopted at certain ages. Typical milestones that a society expects are schooling until 18, vocational studies in the 20s, parenthood in the 30s, career peak in the 40s, grand-parenthood in the 50s-60s, pensioner in the 60s-70s, wise elder in the 80s-90s, and so forth. You may or may not follow the pattern and that is exactly what determines your sociocultural age. For example, a teenage mother may take on the role of a 30 year old, a sportsman who retires at 30 would take on the role of a 65 year old and at 50 you might decide to go back to university and feel 20.

What social role you have may effect your other ages. Thus, late parenthood or late studies may keep you mentally young, whereas early parenthood may ‘age’  you mentally or biologically at a faster pace.

Perceived Age

You may know your chronological, mental, biological and sociocultural ages, but it is still possible that it all does not add up for you. You still do not feel your age! How old you perceive yourself to be, or the ‘felt-age’, reflects the perception of your own well-being related to your own expectations about aging. A positive self-perception of ones own health correlates with a higher level of well-being. Through social comparison, the older people get, the more they may consider themselves in better health than their same-aged peers, thus even though objective health may worsen with age, subjective health may remain relatively stable. This is often stated as the paradox of ageing.

90 year old when asked how it felt to be 90: "I wouldn't know, darling. I don't feel 90."

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Even in younger years, you may feel older or younger than your chronological age depending on your physical, mental or social well-being. Confused, emerging adults, might be quite unsure about how old they feel. Some older adults might not feel at ease with people in their age group and prefer to hang out with younger, more energetic persons, which in turn effects their perception of themselves. Low energy levels or negative feelings about yourself may result in you feeling older on some days, whereas keeping physically and mentally active may result in positive feelings and thus a lower felt-age on other days.

Felt-age often goes hand in hand with how others perceive you. The estimated age of a person, or the ‘perceived age’ is often an integral part of clinical assessments of patients. In old-age, this perceived age is influenced negatively by what we see, e.g. wrinkled skin and low body mass index (BMI) and often positively for people with high social status or a cheerful personality. For younger children this perceived age is often used to assess if a child is ready to start schooling or not.

So, as you can see, age is not as simple as you may have imagined it to be. Maybe next time you ought to think twice before answering the question “how old are you?”.

Do you feel your age? If not, why not? Would be great to read about it in the comments below!

Life changes over time

Nothing is constant. Life changes. Lifestyles change. Civilizations change.

Average life expectancy in Europe in the beginning of the 20th century was around 50 years. By the middle of the 20th century it was around 70 years. Today it is around 80 years and increasing. As a matter of fact, the fastest growing age group today is the 80+ age group. This means, today we have around 30 years longer to manage all that our great-grand parents managed to do within 50 years. Our children will have up to 90 or even 100 years, which is almost double the amount of time.

The emergence of new life stages

No wonder we need new models to classify life today. Just like the concept of “childhood” was developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, children until then being perceived as “young adults” and as a vital part of the work force, the past century has seen the emergence of up to 3 new stages. In the beginning of the 1900s, the concept of “adolescence” or “teenagers” was developed  by G. Stanley Hall as a “time of disturbance and psychological confusion”. Erik Eriksson and Anna Freud further evolved the definitions of this stage in the 1950s.

Up till quite recently, most studies of human life stages have stuck with these categories: infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old-age.  Adulthood being described as a longish span between 20-60 years and old-age was anything that came after that. Some theories did break down adulthood into the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, but old-age has still been pretty much lumped together in one longish stage until end-of-life. In today’s world a 60 or 70-year-old is no longer a frail, dependent elder. Today’s 60-year-old still has another 20-30 years to look forward to and this long stage does not do justification to reality any more. Thus emerged a classification into the “young old” (60-85) and the “old old”or “oldest old” (85+). Some gerontologists also added the “middle old” stage (75-85). But there is no general consensus on this division yet.

Another phenomena that has been observed as a result of this extension of human lifespan is the fact that young adults are ever more hesitant in taking on responsibilities and in committing themselves too soon. These young adults prefer to take their own time in choosing from the sea of possibilities in front of them. Different vocations are tried out, job changes are frequent, marriage commitments are postponed and children come much later. This phenomena resulted in the creation of yet another stage (by Jeffrey Arnett in the year 2000) the “emerging adults” that spans from adolescence till adulthood.

Changing lifestyles

When I was a child/teenager, I would come home from school, finish my homework and rush out to be with my friends. I would come back home at the onset of darkness, have dinner and maybe watch a TV program or two on one of the few TV channels, before surrendering myself to bed. Most of the time was spent outside of the house or with friends, or maybe even just ‘getting bored’ at home.

Compare that to a typical day of today’s children/teenagers. With access to unlimited digital entertainment, be it via TV, streaming, tablets, smartphones or other digital medium, the children today seldom have the opportunity to “get bored”. Social interaction is often via apps and “alone time” is something they look forward to. Just last week, when we wanted to go out to see the new blockbuster “Dr Strange”, my friend’s 10 year old son preferred to stay home with his tablet. What a change! Or compare my childhood/teenage years to those of my mother or grandmother. The expectations on these Blobs really have changed over time!

A similar and major change can also be seen in the emerging/young-adult Blobs. Thirty years ago, in my young days, if you were not married, hadn’t moved out of house and didn’t have a fixed job by the late 20s,  you were considered to be rather late. Having the first child after 30 was considered extremely late and medically irresponsible. 30 years before that, in my mother’s generation, the appropriate age was the mid-20s and 30 years before that, in my grandmother’s generation, it was the early-20s or even earlier. Compare that to today! Now you see more and more young adults living carefree, single lives up in to their mid/late 30s. Today’s challenging job-market doesn’t make it easier for them and settling down is readily postponed. Read more on this in the emerging and young adult Blobs.

woman-690036_640Such age-based changes in expectations can not only be observed in the other Blobs, but also on gender roles within the different Blobs. Whereas 30 or 60 years ago (my mother and grandmother’s generation) it was the norm that a mother stayed at home to cater for the children and household, while the father had to ‘earn the bread’, this setup is increasingly not sustainable or expected any more. Be it due to economic reasons, or due to self-fulfillment reasons, mothers of today are increasingly going back to the work-force, after a short baby-break, and are expecting fathers to take on their part of the household chores. Though it is still an exception to see stay-at-home fathers, the trend is evolving and the stigma that went with it up till a few years ago is diminishing.

Besides age and gender based changes, family institutions and work-environment based changes are also developing at a fast pace. Divorces, single or single-parent households and same-gender households are on the rise, as the stigmas associated to them in the past generations are dissolving. On work-side, project based contracts, teleworking and consultants are on the rise. Being employed by the same company for long periods of 20 years or more, as was the norm before, is now the exception. Additionally, in many countries the typical retirement age of 65 years is being questioned, as financing the prolonged old-age stages is getting to be challenging.

Is all change good?

So, where are we heading? A skeptic would say we are moving towards insecure economic times, with broken families and lonely, unsocial individuals. An optimist would say we are moving towards longer and healthier lives, with infinite opportunities and possibilities and more freedom.

What do you think? Would be great if you would share your thoughts!

Read more about the 6 year Blobs:
Spring: 1-6, 7-12, 13-18, 19-24
Summer: 25-30, 31-36, 37-42, 43-48
Autumn: 49-54, 55-60, 61-66, 67-72
Winter: 73-78, 79-84, 85-91, 91-…