WEDNESDAY, July 11, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- For seniors who feel years younger than they really are, a new study suggests it might not be their imagination.
"We found that people who feel younger have the structural characteristics of a younger brain," explained lead author Jeanyung Chey. She is a professor in the department of psychology & program for brain sciences at Seoul National University in South Korea.
Chey and her colleagues focused on a group of Korean adults drawn from an aging study. The researchers first conducted a health survey in 2014, which was followed by a second psychosocial survey in 2015.
All of the participants -- who were 71, on average -- also underwent neuropsychological assessments, followed by brain scans. None of the enrolled patients suffered from any neurological disorder or mental health impairment.
The brain scans revealed that seniors who reported feeling younger than their chronological age had more gray matter in key parts of their brain that typically tend to shrink as one ages. Shrinking gray matter is one sign of declining brain health, Chey noted.
"People who felt younger than their age were [also] more likely to score higher on a memory test, considered their health to be better, and were less likely to report depressive symptoms," she added. The findings held true even after accounting for a wide range of factors, including an individual's mental health status, sense of overall well-being, and/or history of depression.
But Chey stressed that the findings are "insufficient" to prove that simply feeling young means one's brain is biologically younger.
Still, Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer's Association, said that "the findings are consistent with a growing body of research that suggests that overall brain health plays a major role in how we feel and function, including whether we feel younger or older than our actual age."
According to Fargo, "It's said that age is a state of mind, but this study suggests that age is really a state of one's brain."
But does a less-aged brain give rise to a sense that one is younger? Or vice versa?
The study authors suggested that taking the time to probe individuals for their own sense of how old they actually feel may ultimately offer valuable insight into concrete neurological changes that standard testing might miss.
Chey said, "We need more detailed measures of healthy lifestyles and [a long-term] study to clarify the aforementioned possibilities." Plus, the study could not prove cause and effect.
Fargo added that a person's brain health is likely to be reflected in how young that person feels, given that mental ("cognitive") decline or diseases of the brain take "an enormous toll on our physical, mental and emotional health. If you are struggling with cognition, it's hard to feel young."
Regardless, he noted that the latest findings set the stage for future research to explore how lifestyle choices, age-related feelings, and brain health all interconnect.
The big question, Fargo said, is "are people who feel younger more likely to adopt interventions that promote brain health? Or does adoption of these interventions actually make people feel younger?"
The findings were published in the June online issue of Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
There's more on the aging brain at the U.S. National Institute on Aging.