Kennedy: Why boomers look older than they feel

Mark Kennedy / Staff file photo

I've noticed for a while that my high school classmates are getting old — bless their hearts.

By old, I mean gray-headed, wrinkled, misshapen and splotchy.

We graduated high school in 1976 -- America's bicentennial year. Our class ring design had a Liberty Bell and Revolutionary War symbols. That was 47 years ago, folks.

(If you are wondering, the nation's 250th anniversary in 2026 is called the United States' semiquincentennial, but don't spit out your dentures trying to say semiquincentennial.)

Every time I go on Facebook now, I see one or more of these high school classmates. Sometimes they gather in groups in our Middle Tennessee hometown and post pictures. By any measure, they look like senior citizens, because they are. Most of us are hopping on the Medicare train this year.

On a whim, I decided to take a close look in the bathroom mirror at myself. Not the cursory glance of myself I get in the morning through shower fog and shaving cream. I mean a head-turning, pore-inspecting, nose-hair-plucking self-study.

"Whoa," I thought to myself after about 30 seconds of this. "I, too, am gray-headed, wrinkled, misshapen and splotchy. How did I miss that?"

Well, now I have an answer to this question, thanks to a brilliant piece I read in The Atlantic this week titled "The Puzzling Gap Between How Old You Are and How Old You Think You Are."

It brought to mind a conversation I had with a neighbor during my afternoon walk several years ago. He was about 75 years old, and he said something like, "I know I look 75, but I don't feel it inside. I still feel young."

I've thought about that comment often and have decided that it's an almost universal emotion. It is an irony of aging that we can see our body sag on the outside but our interior selves don't feel bent or wrinkled.

The Atlantic piece cites a 2006 study asking 1,470 Danish citizens: "How old are you in your head?" The study revealed that people, on average, feel about 20% younger than their actual age.

For example, I'm 64. So, according to this formula, most people my age would envision themselves as feeling about 51 "in our heads." It's probably no coincidence that my Facebook mug shot is about 13 years old. In my defense, it's old because I'm a Luddite and don't know how to change it -- although I haven't tried very hard.

I suspect we baby boomers will be content to stick indefinitely in the "feeling-20%-younger-than-we-actually-are" cohort. Think of this mindset as plastic surgery for the soul.

Interestingly, the Danish study also pointed out that young adults actually felt older than their chronological ages. Sounds about right. Our two sons, ages 16 and 21, both think they are about 30. Sometimes their mother and I have to reel them back in. On the other hand, the fact that they lean into independence is admirable.

So what does this age-feelings disconnect really mean?

Gertrude Stein says, "We are always the same age inside."

Which is just another way of saying that the human soul looks in the mirror and recognizes its immortality.

I can live with that.

The Family Life column publishes in print on Sundays. Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645.