Feel younger, live longer. It’s a simple prescription for longevity, and one that is backed up by research. For older people, feeling younger than your chronological age is strongly linked with better memory, better health and improved longevity, studies show.

But what is the secret to feeling younger?

After all, there are many reasons why people feel older than their actual age—including health issues. But now new research has found a powerful factor in how young we feel—and it’s one you can do something about. For older adults, the study finds, how young you feel has a lot to do with your sense of control.

How Old Do You Feel Day to Day?

Previous research has found that how old we feel (our subjective age), as well as how in control, both fluctuate from day to day as events and encounters with others influence our perceptions and mood. This new study was designed to investigate how those fluctuations might be linked in both older and younger adults.

Researchers at at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, recruited 116 men and women ages 60 to 90 and another 106 men and women ages 18 to 36. In the older group, 55% were still working and 45% were retired.

In daily surveys over nine days, participants were asked eight questions that tapped into their sense of control—to what extent they felt they could influence the events in their lives—and were also asked how old they felt that day. In addition, both groups submitted information about daily stressors they encountered such as disagreements or potential disagreements as well as stressful events at work, home or among friends. They also logged daily physical symptoms they experienced from a checklist of 28 (such as allergies, fatigue, joint pain, cough).

What Matters Over Age 60

For both the younger and older groups, subjective age varied day to day. But among the older participants, these variations were keenly tied to their sense of control. Key finding:On the days when they felt more in control, they tended to feel younger.(For the younger participants, the number of stressors and physical symptoms made a difference, but their sense of control didn’t.)

Given the challenges of growing older, it’s easy to feel out of control some days. But the more you feel in control on a daily basis, the less likely you are to overreact to stress. In addition to physical health benefits of reduced stress, your cognitive abilities—how well your brain performs—benefit, too.

The findings have implications for elderly caregiving, the researchers note. In nursing homes, for example, letting residents have more choices in their daily lives—choices as simple as how the furniture is arranged, how they spend time with friends, even who takes care of the houseplants—have been shown to improve well-being.

For the rest of us who are in our 50s, 60s and older, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to feeling more in control. Setting priorities, finding time to disconnect from devices and spending time with friends are common advice. But one activity may be particularly effective—exercise.

Everyone knows that exercise is key to lifelong health. But one of the ways that it benefits us is by giving us a sense that we have a little more control over how the day goes. A regular exercise habit—something as simple as a daily walk—has been shown to improve mood, reduce anxiety, boost self-esteem…and increase a sense of control. In a separate pilot study from the group at the University of North Carolina, previously sedentary men and women aged 35 to 69 who started exercising regularly reported that they felt—you guessed it—younger.

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