How Does Subjective Age Get "Under the Skin"? The Association Between Biomarkers and Feeling Older or Younger Than One's Age: The Health and Retirement Study

Innov Aging. 2019 Sep 4;3(4):igz035. doi: 10.1093/geroni/igz035. eCollection 2019 Aug.


Background and objectives: Though subjective age is a well-recognized risk factor for several chronic diseases, the biological basis for these associations remains poorly understood.

Research design and methods: We used new comprehensive biomarker data from the 2016 wave of the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to evaluate the association between biomarker levels and self-reported subjective age in a subset of 3,740 HRS participants who provided a blood sample. We measured biomarkers in seven biological domains associated with aging: inflammation, glycemia, lipids, liver function, endocrine function, renal function, and cardiac function. The primary outcome was the age discrepancy score (subjective age - chronological age) categorized as those who felt younger, older, or the same as their chronological age (reference group). Analyses adjusted for comprehensive psychosocial factors (chronic stress index, depression score), demographic factors (race, sex, body mass index, marital status, physical activity), and prevalence of chronic health conditions (comorbidity index).

Results: The prevalence of clinically relevant reduced levels of albumin concentrations was lower in those who felt younger (8.8% vs. 16.0%; p = .006) and higher in those who felt older (20.4% vs. 16.0%; p = .03) when compared with the reference category. The prevalence of clinically significant elevation in liver enzymes such as alanine aminotransferase was also significantly lower among those who felt younger (7.1% vs. 8.6%; p = .04) when compared with the reference category. Prevalence of clinically elevated levels in cystatin C was also lower among those who felt younger when compared with the reference category (50.0% vs. 59.1%; p = .04). There was no association between lipids, glucose, or C-reactive protein (inflammatory marker) and subjective age categories.

Discussion and implications: These results suggest that people who feel younger may have favorable biomarker profiles and as a result may have lower prevalence of age-related diseases when compared with those who feel older or those who feel the same as their chronological age.

Keywords: Age discrepancy score; Biological domains; Physiological aging.