In 1991, I gave a presentation at a Mind/Body Medicine meeting of health care professionals. Deepak Chopra, MD, one of the leaders in the field of holistic medicine gave a keynote presentation, that forever altered my life and in particular, my perception of “aging.” He talked about a amazing study that occurred in 1979.
A Harvard psychologist took a group of men, all nursing home residents between the age of 70 and 80 to a remote New England monastery that was retrofitted to 1959.
Everything present, the television, magazines, newspapers were all circa 1959. The men were asked to live as if it was in fact 1959. They listened to radio programs, watched television shows, and discussed the politics and sports events of that time. The men were instructed by the Dr.Langer and her associates to act as if they’d traveled back in time.
The researchers wanted to find out if their continuously reliving 20 years earlierfor just one week could change measurable changes in their health.
Dr. Ellen Langer, a social psychologist and psychology professor reported the research findings that were amazing. After 7 days, the men had more joint flexibility, increased movement, and decreased arthritis in their hands. Their levels of intelligence and cognitive function measurably increased, as did their walking, muscle strength and posture. Photographs taken at the end of the study were judged to be younger. In other words, the “aging process” in tangible ways had turned around.
Hearing about this study eternally changed the way I thought about aging. I knew that the mind played a role. I carefully observed my parents over the years show minimal signs of “aging” due to their love of life and their daily engagement with fulfilling their dreams and loves, while their brothers and sisters, especially those younger than them appeared to be their elders.
In 2009, Dr. Langer’s book, Counterclockwise was published. She believes, and I wholeheartedly agree that we are all the product of our own beliefs and stereotypes about aging and health. Without consideration we allow the unfortunate cues our culture affords about disease and “old age,” and these influence our self-concepts and our behavior.
Another interesting research study conducted using clothing as a catalyst for “aging” stereotypes. Most people attempt to dress in terms of what is culturally appropriate for their age.
They decided to evaluate people who regularly wear uniforms during their work day and compare them with people who use street clothes. She found that those who didn’t wear uniforms had more sick days due to illness or injury, more doctor’s visits and hospital stays, more chronic diseases, despite the fact that they had the same income level.
The uniformed people weren’t continuously reminded of their “aging” by their clothing choices. The health differences, according to Dr. Langer were even more exaggerated when she evaluated affluent people: presumably the means to buy clothes, that were seemingly internalized as unhealthy attitudes and expectations.
She points that we are overwhelmed on a daily basis by signals that aging is an unavoidable and undesirable period of decline. These signals make it difficult to “age” or live gracefully and that pigeonholes us regardless of our age into expected diseases.
We instantaneously accept our diagnoses like cancer and depression, and allow them to define us. This prevents a healthier future.
About the 1979 study, Dr. Langer wrote: This study shaped not only my view of aging but also my view of limits in a general way for the next few decades. Over time I have come to believe less and less that biology is destiny. It is not primarily our physical selves that limit us but rather our mindset about our physical limits. Now I accept none of the medical wisdom regarding the courses our disease must take as necessarily true.
If a group of elderly adults could produce such dramatic changes, in their lives, so too can the rest of us.
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