Personality and subjective age are related, according to a new study published in the journal Psychology and Aging.
Feeling younger than one’s age is associated with numerous positive outcomes, including a lower risk of incident dementia and mortality. Conversely, “an older subjective age can help identify individuals who are at risk for poor health, cognitive decline, and impairment,” write Yannick Stephan and colleagues.
Subjective age is sensitive to numerous cues about aging ,and predicts age-related outcomes given “it reflects biological and health-related factors, social processes, and psychological dispositions relevant to these outcomes.” For example, individuals who feel younger also tend to have better health in terms of biomarkers associated with aging, functional health, and perception of their health, as well as fewer depressive symptoms.
In this work, Stephan and colleagues studied the association between personality traits and subjective age. They focused on the “Big Five” model of personality, which encompasses neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.
Participants were drawn from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study Graduate and Siblings samples, the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, the Midlife in the United States Survey, the Health and Retirement Study, and the National Health and Aging Trends Study. Participants were included if they had available data on all five personality factors, subjective age, and demographic characteristics (e.g., age, sex, education). Demographic information, personality traits, and subjective age were assessed at baseline, while subjective age was assessed again in the latter three samples approximately 4 to 20 years later.
The samples combined included over 30,000 participants, with participants’ age ranging from 46.9 – 78.9. Potential mediators of the relation between personality and age included “self-rated health, physical activity, depressive symptoms, and chronic conditions,” and were assessed at baseline.
Participants provided ratings to numerous descriptive statements such as, “To what extent do you agree that you see yourself as someone who worries a lot?”, “Would you say your health is excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor?”, or “To what extent do you agree that you see yourself as someone who does things efficiently?” The researchers statistically controlled for sex, age, education, and race, given prior research has confirmed associations between these demographic markers and subjective age.
The researchers found that while neuroticism was related to older subjective age, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness were associated with younger subjective age. In contrast to the researchers’ hypotheses, longitudinal analyses in two of the samples revealed that lower neuroticism and higher extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness were positively associated with feeling increasingly older over time. However, this relation was very small. As well, the relation between personality and subjective age was independent of chronological age.
A mediation analysis indicated that neuroticism and subjective age were in part related through health-related and behavioral pathways. This makes sense, given neuroticism is associated with more functional limitations, poorer subjective health, and lower levels of physical activity, which likely contribute to feeling older.
Relatedly, better perceived health, lower chronic conditions, lower depressive symptoms, and more frequent physical activity explain part of the relation between higher extraversion, openness, and conscientiousness, and younger subjective age.
The researchers note that “causality cannot be established with an observational design.” In other words, despite personality predicting subjective age, reciprocal relationships – whereby subjective age predicts changes in personality – are also possible. Additionally, only one of the six samples was non-American. Thus, more research is needed to determine whether this finding extends to other cultures.
The study, “Personality and subjective age: Evidence from six samples”, was authored by Yannick Stephan, Angelina R. Sutin, Anna Kornadt, Brice Canada, and Antonio Terracciano.