Think yourself young?

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I came across this report earlier this week about a piece of research which apparently found that older individuals who think of themselves as elderly and frail are more likely to end up actually being old and frail. The details of the research are not to be found on-line, but reading this report immediately reminded me of my driving instructor when I was 17. I liked Ernie a lot, and enjoyed our lessons partly because he would often make me laugh and we would also talk about stuff other than driving, including what we’d been up to socially.

I imagined Ernie was about 50. But near the end of our time together, Ernie revealed to me he was 65 (I forget how this came up). I was absolutely flabbergasted: I honestly thought he was a decade or two younger than that. I asked Ernie to what he attributed his apparent youthfulness. He had a theory that if someone hangs out with old people with old mindsets then one runs the risk of becoming like that oneself. He deliberately chose to avoid socially ‘people like that’, and perhaps it was no coincidence that he had chosen a job which regularly brought him into contact with teenagers and young adults.

This is one man’s experience, but I have to say I’ve seen it mirrored in lots of other people over the years (including my own mother). This proves nothing, of course, but there is actually some evidence that one’s attitude may indeed affect the ageing process.

In 1979, psychologist Ellen Langer conducted a piece of research designed to test this idea. She invited a group of 75-year-old men to spend a week on a retreat. It was a retreat with a difference, though. The men were instructed to dress, speak and act as though the year was 1959. Their environment was decked out like it would have been in 1959, and no magazines or books dated later than 1959 were allowed at the retreat.
Before the retreat, men underwent assessment of physical and mental function including their strength, posture, eyesight, intelligence, perception and memory.

At the end of the week, the men were tested again, and most of the men had improved in all of the assessments. Even characteristics that are generally regarded as fixed – such as eyesight and intelligence – were found to have improved across the group. This research was subsequently detailed in Ellen Langer’s 2009 book entitled: Counter-Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.

I have a deep belief that certain lifestyle factors can genuinely help to retard the ageing process and help preserve physical and mental functioning. However, the evidence suggests that how old we are biologically can be influenced by our attitudes and state of mind too. While he may not have known it at the time, Ernie’s instincts were likely bang on.

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