A brief memory test can make you feel five years older in less than five minutes, according to a new study. Researchers from Texas A&M University have determined that among older people, certain mental tasks may exert a significant influence on their subjective perception of age. As subjective age is often more reliable than biological age when it comes to predicting health risks, the findings may inspire new ways to tackle age-related illnesses.

Published in the journal Psychological Science, the study sought to investigate whether an individual’s subjective age can be altered. According to lead researcher Lisa Geraci, such alteration could have clinical significance, as subjective feelings about age often have a tremendous impact on health outcomes – particularly among older people. For this reason, a reliable way to modulate subjective age may help lower an individual’s risk of developing health condition associated with old age.

“Previous work shows that how old one feels — one’s subjective age — predicts significant health outcomes, even better than one’s chronological age predicts these outcomes,” she explained in a press release. “These new results are exciting because they suggest that subjective age is malleable, and that we may be able to change subjective age and influence older adults’ cognition and behavior.”

To investigate the malleability of subjective age, the researchers enrolled 22 older adults in an experiment. The participants, whose ages ranged from 65 to 85, were first asked to indicate how old they felt on a line marked with endpoints of 0 and 120. After that, they completed a brief test designed to assess memory and cognitive abilities. At the end of the test, the participants were once again asked to indicate their subjective age on the line.

The results revealed that the average participant felt almost five years older after completing the memory task – an increase from 58.59 to 63.14 years. Intriguingly, none of the participants exhibited any actual impairment to memory or cognitive abilities. From this, the researchers concluded that the participants were thrown off by their perceived mental abilities rather than their actual abilities.

“This research shows that simply putting an older adult in a memory testing context affects how they feel about themselves,” Geraci explained.

Future research will focus on identifying more tasks that influence subjective age perception in older adults. The team is also investigating whether certain activities can make people feel younger.

Source: Matthew L. Hughes, Lisa Geraci, and Ross L. De Forrest. Aging 5 Years in 5 Minutes: The Effect of Taking a Memory Test on Older Adults’ Subjective Age. Psychological Science 0956797613494853, first published on October 7, 2013