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Age Is Just a Number

The Cultural Impact of Individual Age Identity on Mental and Physical Well-being

(February 2021) Research has demonstrated that holding a young subjective age (i.e. feeling younger than one’s chronological age) has been associated with various positive aspects of physical and mental health. However, little is known about how such associations differ between cultural sub-groups within a given society. Therefore, researchers Bergman and Shrira focused on the Israeli component of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE-Israel) and aimed to explore the moderating role of culture on the association between subjective age, objective physical health, and physical and mental well-being.

Age Identity vs. Chronological Age

The concept of “subjective age” is multi-dimensional and focuses on how young or old an individual feels from various health-related perspectives such as a physical, mental, and cognitive one. In this regard, subjective age is subsumed under the umbrella term of “awareness of ageing” that also includes self-perceptions of ageing, stereotypes regarding older adults, and awareness of age-related change. Holding negative age stereotypes may be harmful to older adults’ physical and mental health whereas a positive view on individual age has been linked with several biological, behavioural, and psychological mechanisms, such as blood pressure and inflammation, as well as engagement in health-promoting behaviours, which may subsequently be connected with higher personal satisfaction and overall higher quality of life.

Cultural Differences in the Israeli Society

Israel is a multicultural society, which is comprised of various social and cultural groups. Along with the Jewish Israeli majority group, there are two main minority groups: Jewish immigrants from the former USSR, which comprise around 18% of the older adult population in Israel, and Israeli Arab citizens, who comprise 8.5% of this population. Previous research has shown that immigration may present unique challenges for older adult immigrants from the former USSR, such as language acquisition, employment, and income security. The Arab population is characterised by a lower socio-economic status, early exit from the workforce, and low rates of female employment. Access to medical care in Israel has been described as unequal in its coverage and geographic distribution, making a lack of health care access more common for the Arab population. Additionally, older Arab adults demonstrate reduced physical activity in comparison to their Jewish counterparts and are less likely to visit specialists to seek medical advice. SHARE-Israel collected data from almost 1,800 respondents, who were classified into the three previously described groups: veteran Israeli Jews, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and Israeli Arab citizens. Respondents’ age ranged from 50 to 105.

Evidence for a Moderating Role of a Young Individual Age Identity

All participants rated their subjective age and filled out scales examining six dimensions covering overall well-being, as well as objective and subjective physical health. The six dimensions were daily activity, handgrip strength, self-rated health, subjective successful ageing, individual perception of overall quality of life, and experience of depressive symptoms. Across all examined dimensions, an older subjective age was associated with unfavourable health outcomes. For the majority of health dimensions, the subjective age-health links were most prominent among Israeli Arabs: On average, veteran Jewish Israelis and former-USSR immigrants felt 10% younger than their chronological age while Israeli Arabs felt 12% younger – a small, albeit significant, difference in subjective age.

A younger subjective age was positively linked with all six measured variables examining objective health, subjective health, and mental well-being. These findings are in line with a large amount of research demonstrating the beneficial association between one’s younger age identity and individual physical and mental well-being. Further, the respondents’ cultural group was a significant moderator among all six variables, which strengthens the claim that subjective age may be a more powerful determining factor for well-being when resources are less available to a specific societal sub-group. The results indicate that the associations of subjective age with objective health are less pronounced among the majority group of veteran Jewish Israelis in comparison to the Arab minority group. This could stem from the fact that as the majority group, veteran Jewish Israelis have both increased access to, and better knowledge of, their benefits and privileges and consequently, their sense of personal responsibility for their well-being in old age becomes less imperative. Furthermore, even if members of this group feel older than their chronological age, they have better access to the health-care system (both physically and financially), in order to ameliorate the negative effects of an old-age identity.

Individual Age and Public Health

Most research addressing health-related outcomes of subjective age has focused on societies which are more youth-oriented and promote the beneficial outcomes of feeling and looking younger. Therefore, there are relatively few studies which examined the effects of subjective age from a cross-cultural perspective. Moreover, studies which investigated these issues focused on differences between countries – and hence different national public health services – rather than on how subjective age is linked with physical and mental well-being among different cultural groups in one society. Bergman and Shrira have now demonstrated that a younger individual age identity among minority groups within a given society may compensate for limited access to public health care resources. Hence, future research should delve deeper into the underlying social and psychological mechanisms which comprise an individual’s own cultural perception (such as values, beliefs, adherence to cultural norms), as well as those which characterise the overall culture itself (such as an open or a tight society, some with strong social norms).


Study by Yoav S. Bergman and Amit Shrira (2020): Cultural differences in the association between subjective age and health: evidence from the Israeli component of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE-Israel). Ageing & Society, doi.org/10.1017/S0144686X20000707

URL: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0144686X20000707

Photo: Adobe Stock / Inna