Your birth certificate gives your date of birth, but does it really say anything about how old you are or how old you feel? Does it tell people you swim for an hour every morning or that you play at a local jazz club once a week? Chronological age is based on a number, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. Behavioral age, however, is measured in things you absolutely can control: attitude and activity.
“Behavioral age is about how you decide to play out life,” says Gary Frost, Ph.D., adjunct professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and an expert on aging. “There are people who simply accept their date of birth, and abdicate their behavior to that age. But it’s a choice.”
Those choices will help set the parameters for your life moving forward. For instance, you can choose to work around your physical limitations or you can limit your level of activity because of them. You can expand your social network or allow it to shrink. You can make plans to experience new things, or stick with the status quo. In the same way that physical activity boosts your energy levels and lifts your spirits, so do mental and social activities—from going back to school to volunteering to working part time. Here are some choices you can make to stay young, at any age.
Live with optimism. Being optimistic doesn’t mean thinking the glass is full when it’s practically empty. It means feeling confident that you can fill it back up. For many older people, that confidence comes naturally. As we age, we undergo a developmental process that gives us a more positive outlook. We have a perspective on life that we couldn’t have had decades earlier, and that perspective often allows us to take stock of what has worked in our lives and what hasn’t. Age has a way of making us think, I should spend my time and energies in productive ways.
Dream for the future. When you’re young, life is all about making plans and looking forward to the next adventure. In order to stay young, you need to continue dreaming about what lies ahead, and taking steps to make it happen. Keep your calendar full. Explore new places, or rediscover your own city. Sign up for those guitar lessons or art classes. “When I ask older people what they’ve always wanted to do and haven’t done, I’ve never gotten a blank stare or anything short of a long list,” says Frost. “Having dreams can turn into a daily purpose: How do I get better at that, how can I learn.”
Build social connections. There was probably a time when you had too many people in your life to keep up with. But little by little, those relationships drift away, as marriages end, people move and friends get sick or die. Aging without a vibrant social life can be lonely and depressing —not to mention boring—so it’s important to replace the relationships that start to disappear, and strengthen the ones that remain.
Find spirituality. Whether you are moved by faith, or by an outside force such as music or nature, making a spiritual connection is a source of joy and inspiration. And the research shows that, for some, going back to formal religion is valuable, too. Being part of an organized religious group in older age is a good move for two reasons. The first is that belonging to a congregation provides a built-in social network and offers many ways to be active and involved. Better yet, studies show that people who participate in organized religion live longer than those who don’t.
Strive for independence. Chances are, you’ve wanted to live independently since you were 18 years old. For many people, that desire is just as strong at 78 or even 88. The longer you can safely remain on your own and have control over your daily life, the younger you’ll act and feel. Surveys show that 80 to 90 percent of older people want to remain in their homes, and the majority of them can. Less than half of Americans over the age of 85 need help with everyday activities, and even they won’t necessarily have to give up independent living.
Change your image of aging. Your perception of aging, and of yourself, affects how you behave in later life and how you actually age. If you think older people are lousy drivers, you may start to limit your own driving, even if you’re still a good driver. To combat the negative perceptions or self-doubts about aging, write down your story—the way it is now, and then the way you’d like the story to play out. “It’s a powerful tool to have a positive story about your own aging. There’s not a part of the story that says you don’t do things at a certain age,” says Frost.
Staying positive, active and engaged can make later life as joyful and productive as any other stage. It will also keep you young, no matter what the date on your driver’s license says.