Even though two people might be born at the same exact moment, that doesn’t mean that the passage of time affects both individuals equally. If you’re the kind of 30-year-old that gets asked for ID at bars, here’s some good news. Researchers in the Netherlands found that participants who looked five years younger than their actual age exhibited better cognitive abilities and were up to 25% less likely to suffer from age-related conditions, such as cataracts, hearing loss, and osteoporosis. Conversely, the participants who looked older than they actually were had a higher risk of age-related illnesses.
“In other words, if you look younger than you are, then the health of your organ systems, body and mind are likely to reflect this,” according to lead author Professor Tamar Nijsten, a dermatologist at Erasmus University Medical Center Rotterdam.
More than just a young face
Nijsten and colleagues put together an independent panel of 27 assessors that were asked to estimate the age of 2679 men and women from the Netherlands, aged between 51 and 88 years, from their portraits. The participants’ photos were taken during a dermatological examination at the Rotterdam medical center, and during their visit the participants were instructed not to wear any creams, make-up, or jewelry.
The difference between the participant’s estimated age and their chronological age was then tested for associations with age-related conditions, including cardiovascular, pulmonary, ophthalmological, neurocognitive, renal, skeletal, and auditory conditions adjusted for participants’ age and sex.
The group of participants who looked five years younger than their age performed better in cognitive tests and were 15% less likely to develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and 24% less likely to have osteoporosis. Conversely, those who look older than their actual age may experience a higher risk of death than those who look their age. No link was found between perceived age and osteoarthritis, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), or glaucomatous visual field loss (GVFL).
These findings led the authors to conclude that one’s facial appearance is associated with both physical and cognitive health. How old a person looks could thus be used as an additional clinical marker during physical assessment.
Previously, other research groups reached similar conclusions. A study on identical twins found that when the older-looking twin died first, the apparent (guessed) age gap was on average 1.4 years. In a Japanese study of 273 men and women, a lower apparent age was associated with lower carotid intima media thickness. And a study on 20,000 men from Copenhagen found that the participants with more facial wrinkles, grey hair and baldness had a higher risk of myocardial infarction.
Sun exposure and smoking are two obvious environmental factors that contribute to a person’s appearance of aging. However, some factors are simply a result of the natural aging process. In some instances, the connection between looking younger and certain health conditions may be a combination of both external factors and natural aging, such as in the case of glaucoma. But for conditions such as COPD, the association between a youthful appearance and the condition remains even after controlling for lifestyle factors.
Key pieces of DNA called telomeres, which indicate the ability of cells to replicate, are also linked to how young a person looks. A telomere of shorter length is thought to signify faster aging and has been linked with a number of diseases.
“Although this study didn’t examine specifically why this is, it is likely that factors that cause changes to tissue structures in the face which make us look older, such as the reduction of subcutaneous fat and the development of wrinkles, also impact tissue at other sites around the body and are linked to corresponding changes in bone density,” said Nijsten, adding “This is not a definitive study, but it is probably the best study so far providing evidence that perceived age also reflects internal aging. The study clearly demonstrates that something is going on, likely on a biological level and beyond the usual lifestyle factors such as UV exposure or smoking. ”
The new findings appeared in the British Journal of Dermatology.