Feeling young can increase the chances of successful rehabilitation from medical conditions

As scientists gradually discover evidence that people who feel younger than their chronological age tend to be healthier and more psychologically resilient, the saying “you’re only as old as you feel” is becoming more and more true.

Could the expression also apply to the elderly recovering from a physical disability? Evidently. Researchers from Bar-Ilan University in Israel have found that feeling young can increase the chances of successful rehabilitation from medical conditions, even in old age. Their study was recently published in the journal Gerontology

The study followed 194 adult patients, ages 73-84, undergoing rehabilitation from osteoporotic fractures or strokes at various rehabilitation centers across Israel. Fractures (usually due to falls) and strokes are frequent health events that result in the loss of a person’s functional independence, which is considered the greatest fear of older adults.

During their rehabilitation, patients were interviewed several times. They were asked about their subjective age (how young they felt), feelings and experiences. Their functional independence was assessed by nursing staff who assessed their functioning at admission and at discharge using the Functional Independence Measurement (FIM) test.

Patients who felt younger (of a younger subjective age) at hospital admission showed better functional independence at discharge approximately one month later. The beneficial effect of feeling younger was found in patients recovering from osteoporotic fractures (mainly due to falls) as well as in patients recovering from stroke. The researchers also found that those who felt younger rehabilitated better because they were more optimistic about their chances of regaining their functional abilities.

The effect of subjective age at admission on functional independence at discharge was confirmedsaid Prof. Amit Shrira, of the Gerontology Program of the Department of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, who led the study together with Prof. Ehud Bodner, also of the Department of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences.”However, the inverse effect – that of functional independence at admission at subjective age at discharge – was not confirmed. This supports the conclusion that younger age identity is an important psychological construct contributing to more successful rehabilitationadded Shrira, who conducted the study together with Dr. Daphna Magda Kalir of the Gender Studies Program, among others.

Surprisingly, subjective age was the strongest predictor of rehabilitation outcomes, stronger even than patients’ chronological age and multiple co-occurring chronic health problems (physical multimorbidity) at admission. Chronological age and physical multimorbidity are generally considered by health care providers when determining prognosis, while subjective age is unknown for most health care providers. “Those who feel younger are able to maintain their health and functioning for longer periods of time, and as the current study shows, they are better able to recover from disability. Therefore, by successfully seeing themselves old, people can maintain a healthy and vigorous lifestyle.” says Shira.

In view of the findings, the researchers suggest that clinicians consider evaluating patients’ subjective age when designing rehabilitation protocols. A younger subjective age may motivate older individuals to adhere to the rehabilitation protocol after osteoporotic fractures and strokes. Future research could help design interventions aimed at inducing a younger subjective age in patients, which could help them rehabilitate more successfully. Such interventions can help correct false beliefs about aging and include cognitive techniques that help change negative automatic thoughts about aging.

This study was funded by the Israeli Ministry of Science, Technology and Space.


Reference magazine:

Kalir DM, et al. (2022) Feeling younger, rehabilitating better: reciprocal and mediating effects between subjective age and functional independence in osteoporotic fracture and stroke patients. Gerontology. doi.org/10.1159/000524885

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