Study reveals the impact trying to look younger has on aging

Science and Health

In a world where being over 40 is considered by many employers as being “over the hill,” people will do almost anything to look younger – hair transplants, dental implants and teeth whiteners, hair dye, exercise, and injections of wrinkle fillers into their skin.

Appearance is an indicator of age and life stage linked to socially salient stereotypes and prejudices. Older adults’ appearance-related perceptions and behaviors may affect their experiences of aging within broader society, which may influence health. 

Now, a new study looks at what this kind of effort means for older adults’ experiences with the ageism that pervades Western society. The study also explores how a person’s perception of how old they look relates to both their positive and negative age-related experiences and their physical and mental health.

In all, 59% of adults aged 50 to 80 say they think they look younger than other people their age. The percentage was slightly higher among women and among people with higher incomes, more years of education, and current employment.

On the other end of the spectrum, only six percent of older adults said they look older than other people their age. The rest said they look about the same as their peers. A slightly higher percentage of those who were ages 50 to 64 said they looked older than their peers compared with those ages 65 to 80.

(credit: FREEPIK.COM)

As for trying to look younger, the study finds that about one-third of older Americans have invested time or money toward this goal. Those more likely to say they’d done so included women and those with higher incomes. Based on data from a national survey conducted for the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging, the study has just been published in the journal Psychology and Aging under the title “How old do I look? Aging appearance and experiences of aging among U.S. adults ages 50-80.”

Experiences related to aging and ageism

In addition to asking about appearances, the poll asked older adults about both positive and negative experiences related to aging and ageism. Positive ones included being asked for advice and wisdom and feeling a strong sense of purpose, while negative ones included having others assume they have difficulty seeing, hearing, remembering, or using technology.

Those who feel they look younger than other people their age were more likely to score higher on the scale of positive age-related experiences and lower on the scale of negative ageism experiences.

Those who said they had invested time or money in looking younger were more likely to score higher on the positive scale, too; this was especially true for those who are married or have a partner.

However, the news for those who had tried to look younger wasn’t all rosy. Those who said they had invested in strategies to look younger were also more likely to score higher on the scale of negative experiences related to aging.  

Meanwhile, those who say they look older than others their age were much more likely to score higher on the negative ageism experiences scale and lower on the positive age-related experiences scale. The study also looked at how someone’s self-reported health status related to their experiences around aging.

“Taken together, these findings suggest a complex and nuanced relationship between how older adults feel about their age-related appearance and the experiences they have, both positive and negative, related to their age,” said first author Dr. Julie Ober Allen of the health and exercise science department at the University of Oklahoma.

“Feelings and experiences of ageism, which are rooted in our society’s emphasis on youthfulness and bias against aging, appear to indirectly have a relationship with health, both mental and physical.”

The researchers note that the difference between the percentage who feel they look young for their age and the percentage who said they had spent money or time to look younger may reflect both the pervasive bias against aging and the specific bias against admitting that one has done something to change appearances, especially among men. 

The findings suggest that while clinicians and public health authorities should be cautious about reinforcing beliefs that signs of aging are undesirable, they can help adults understand ways that health choices with implications for age-related aspects of appearance may also reduce their likelihood of experiencing both age-related discrimination and poor health outcomes later in life, added co-author internal medicine Prof. Jeff Kullgren of the University of Michigan.

“We know that healthful eating, more physical activity, better sleep, stress-reduction techniques, preventive oral hygiene, use of sunscreen, and reducing or eliminating the use of tobacco, alcohol, and other substances can all impact appearance later in life, as well as physical and mental health,” he concluded. “And many of these interventions are less costly, or at least more evidence-based, than the many commercial products and services that claim to reduce signs of aging.”