Think yourself young?

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.

24 Responses to Think yourself young?

  1. Gel 12 April 2013 at 10:30 am #

    So the fact that listening to (and singing and dancing to) 1980s music makes me feel younger and more buoyant (I was a teenager in the 1980s) may go deeper than I thought; I know I feel better for it but it may be down to more than the plain old nostalgia I am accused of!

  2. Mark I 12 April 2013 at 10:36 am #

    Was there a control for the study, such as a group of 75 year old men spending a week on a retreat but without the 1959 environment? If not, my suspicion would be that the improvements were simply the result of having a “holiday” together.

  3. André 12 April 2013 at 10:46 am #

    Never heard this before. But I strongly believe in the power of our brain. If you think you are gone be sick, chances of that happening increase. Placebo effect may infact be the power of the mind; if you believe you swallow a drug, maybe the brain does the healing.

    Still, I would like to know how this works. Hormones must be the key, but which? Cortisol? Serotonin?

    Just decided I’m 20 years younger ;-)

  4. Liz Smith 12 April 2013 at 11:22 am #

    Last May my son needed help to navigate a furniture truck from Las Vegas to Anchorage and I was requested to come and help. The owners of the furniture were horrified that someone my age would be asked let alone be able to help. My job was to search the sat nav for open truckstops, gas stations and lodging. We did not know how long it would take, but we only had a week to do 3,600 miles. It was the most exciting and scary trip I have ever done, we had to buy petrol as and when we saw it as lots of stations were not open, and finding ‘motels’ was just as hit and miss. Once in Alaska it was greeted with amusement that at my age 72 I would have been as useful as I was to all and not just there for the ride. My own family do not treat me as if I am old, that helps too.

  5. DaveC 12 April 2013 at 12:27 pm #

    Umm, much as hope the hypothesis is correct, that one study & Dr. B’s anecdotes hardly prove it. As Mark I mentioned, plenty of other things about the retreat could have contributed to improving scores. Maybe the group had a healthier diet at the retreat than in their day to day lives. Again, I like the idea that a positive attitude promotes good health, its intuitive, but it still looks speculative.

  6. Adele 12 April 2013 at 1:47 pm #

    I am nearly 89 and heartily endorse that philosophy. Doctors tell me I am not biologically as old 89 I live alone an active, social and “working” life. I always advise my friends to have friends younger than themselves and most of my friends are 16 to 40 years younger than I am. I can’t play the role of ancient sage as I don’t feel any different from them.

    Having younger people around helps you keep in touch with a changing society, to keep changing yourself, finding new and absorbing interests, and keeping your mind off the inevitable journey towards an end. ..

  7. Dr John Briffa 12 April 2013 at 3:24 pm #

    Mark – no control group that I am aware of, and we just don’t know.

    DaveC – I don’t think I’ve claimed my experience and the science I refer to ‘proves’ anything. It’s certainly not definitive and feel free to reject and live your life only by things that are only nailed down scientifically if you wish.

    Gel – I’m exactly the same re 80s music. You may be interested in this: http://absolute80s.com/ if you are not already aware of it.

  8. hm 12 April 2013 at 3:27 pm #

    oh lighten up people. Dr B is allowed a bit of speculation from time to time….
    and its Friday! and we’re not dead yet!
    now, time to boot up Spotify and play some T.Rex

  9. John Walker 12 April 2013 at 3:31 pm #

    To anyone who hasn’t heard of this idea before, or doubts the effect of ‘mindset’, I would say:
    I recently had tradesmen in my house doing work. I would say they were in their 40s and below. Whilst they didn’t slack, we did have some good ‘repartee’. I don’t recall how the subject of my age cropped up, but they did seem surprised to learn I am 74. What delighted me most was the way they pumped me me for my experiences of the Second World War. In fact my memories of it are few, but very clear, And I can remember what I had for breakfast last Wednesday! I put it down to good genes, and the fact I worked in a job that surrounded me with younger people. You can’t beat it. Fortunately, my wife is of the same mindset, so whilst we don’t exactly trip the light-fantastic, we do get around. As my weight comes off, the getting around gets easier. A double-whammy for the ‘Good Life’.

  10. Wayne Bowman 12 April 2013 at 7:11 pm #

    I see this all the time at work woking with mainly older people who attend our health walks and cycle rides. Many of them have such as positive outlook and attitude. One of our walking volunteers is 82 and leads a 2 hour walk every week. . . he often calles himself a ‘recycled teenager!’

  11. Mary Hobbit 13 April 2013 at 7:45 am #

    The area of epigenetics might be a good place to look if anyone is curious for plausible theory & research on how this mind-body connection plays out. Bruce Lipton’s work e.g The Biology Of Belief is quite accessible with references for more hard core science. Enjoyable item as usual, Dr John, thank you.

  12. Jennie 13 April 2013 at 10:16 am #

    Re Think yourself young.
    My husband ( 80 in July this year ) is still working as a self empoyed Fire Safety consultant. He regularly travels abroad to lecture and teach.
    He’s very healthy and fit. On no medication whatsoever. Just a very healthy diet, and a few supplements. Walks miles every week, had both his knees replaced 9 years ago and I think is more fit and healthy than a lot of younger people.
    I’m 20 years younger and we have just celebrated our 38 th wedding anniversary!!
    When we married he was 41 and he already had two grown up children. We went on to have 4 more so we have always had a houseful of ‘ youngsters’ in fact because its so difficult to get on the property ladder, some of our ‘ grown up kids’ have been living with us, and one still does. We still have one at Uni! We now have Grandchildren too so our house is always buzzing with young people. We always joke about having a revolving door on our house.
    I’m sure Dr B is right in that being with youngsters keeps you young! I remember my husband saying when we had our youngest son “I didn’t think I would still be changing nappies when I was 50″ but I really think its kept him young and fit in mind and body.
    Along with good genes, his Mum lived until she was 100!

  13. Deborah 13 April 2013 at 3:17 pm #

    Yes lets have a little speculation here Dr B!! I am totally with you, age is partly an attitude of mind. We as new pensioners (65) 3 years ago emigrated to wild northern Spain, new huge garden, old stone house to repair, new language, new culture, new friends to find… new life, new youth! i have many younger friends as well as some much older ones, i believe it to be healthier for the mind not to be stuck in a generational rut.
    Stepfather then emifrated to Madrid aged 87, and drove there from Uk…… I call him a gnomic youth – he thinks old attitudes make you old.
    The other side of the coin, is meeting “old fogeys” of 35, already stuffy and decrepit.

  14. Patricia Cherry 14 April 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    I am nearly 69 years old and have just completed twelve months training at University to be a Weight Management Life Coach. I am about to embark on a new career with a new business in this.

    I look at people around me the same age who complain that they do not like this business of getting old, but I have decided that I will not be standing the other side of the door when the Grim Reaper comes calling.

  15. Anne 14 April 2013 at 7:51 pm #

    I remember a TV programme some years ago which showed an experiment like the one Dr Briffa described – maybe it was the same one. I’m sure that one of things they also made the participants do was to take away their walking sticks, if they had them – they ended up not needing them by the end of the week ! I’m convinced that it is important not to ‘act’ old, that ‘acting’ young keeps you moving better which helps your mind too. There’s a man at the gym I go to who does weight lifting regularly and he’s in his 70′s !

  16. William L. Wilson, M.D. 14 April 2013 at 10:14 pm #

    I just finished reading Art DeVany’s “The New Evolution Diet” for the second time. I really like the book and Art’s approach. He was one of the first people to promote a Paleo style diet and he practices what he preaches. He is in his late 70′s, yet looks and acts like someone decades younger. His lab work also is similar to a 30 year old.

    Art is an Economist, not a physician or scientist, yet he understand the importance of using evolutionary biology to show us how to live. Biology is very complex and there is much we don’t know about human physiology. Listening to Mother Nature allows us to make good choices even when science is sending mixed messages about the best way to live.

  17. JC 15 April 2013 at 9:21 am #

    We have all met people who look and act a lot younger than their years. A lot of people have attitudes, values and beliefs that need addressing. You can be an “old fogey” at 30. I am a great believer in positive thinking and being active. A lot of older people enjoy activities such as dancing (especially good is rock n roll). The music makes you feel better, and the dancing helps keep you fit. I know that genetics and living a healthy lifestyle are key, but being positive and mixing with people of varying ages also plays it’s part in keeping you “Young”. When surrounded by people who are negative and always moaning about the weather or the latest political scandal, we tend to feel down ourselves. And unfortunately, a lot of older people fit into this catagory. Being active, positive in outlook and optimistic about the future all play their part in helping people feel younger, and hopefully extend their lives.

  18. Mike 15 April 2013 at 10:40 am #

    I remember a psychology related friend of mine telling me a while ago that there was a whole branch of study into why people like me who always expect things to go in their favour generally find it does, I can see this would being true on a similar level.

    I’m not as old as other contributors here but I was inwardly horrified recently when a client asked me to attend an important meeting with them because I added the ‘gravitas’ they lacked! At a mere 50 I had never really thought I did anything or behaved any differently to I did when I was 30 and I guess that’s how I view myself.

  19. Anne Hill 16 April 2013 at 11:50 am #

    i have a friend who i swim with every week day. she drives a yellow sports car. teaches art, is learning the piano. i just taught her to crotchet. she is always cheerful and goes out nearly every night to jazz clubs and line dancing. she also helps the elderly. she is life affirming. she is 81!! i am 66 and i love life too and like to try new things. she is my role model.

  20. pam 18 April 2013 at 12:54 am #

    nice post.

    but listening to 80s music makes me way way old, realizing how much time has passed!

  21. Rita 18 April 2013 at 1:37 am #

    I have two friends who illustrate this very well. Both are female entertainers who have been keeping their ages a secret for decades as part of their business practice. Knowing the age discrimination against older women in show business, they both felt it was unwise to divulge their true age. (They told me because I’m a trusted friend.)

    Both these women exhibit a bizarre (to me) kind of denial, in that neither of them will consider age as having any relevance whatsoever to their lives or physical condition. Both are in terrific shape and of course take great care of their appearance. Among the things they have in common is this belief that there’s no such thing as old age.

    One of these women is 65 and looks 50. The other is 87 and looks 70. Both are extremely independent and energetic. The 87 year old has been meditating every day for over 40 years. The 65 year old is a Christian Scientist who hasn’t been to a doctor in about the same number of years.

    Maybe these ladies are just lucky. But I think there’s something in their attitudes that has kept them incredibly young and fit. Their mantra seems to be “age isn’t important, unless you are a cheese.”

  22. veronica 19 April 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    I do not “think” of myself as being young: I AM YOUNG!! Simple as that. I am 64 years old and I am just beginning my third degree in the University, I work, I travel, I have millons of projects and plans and I am in love. And I am still thinking what else I would like to do when I grow up.

  23. veronica 19 April 2013 at 1:07 pm #

    And people think I am 45.

  24. Cathy 19 April 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    I don’t feel surprised at all. I have always believed in healing through believing, and isn’t it just logical that our bodies just want to be well? If a survey was made, I’m sure quite a few nurses can be found who has seen a patient pull thorough sheer willpower. Why not ageing, too? See here – ageing is nothing but the general sloppiness in cell regeneration, right? If a person had the perfect cell regeneration, s/he would live forever (barring accidents or killer diseases). So if you can force your mind think – no, believe – that you’re regenerating perfectly, your body will take measures to try and make that happen. As the saying goes, you have to look successful to be successful.

    However, I’m a bit skeptic about the vitality of Ernie. As a driving instructor, he must have had sufficient outdoors time. Won’t that help him stay in shape? Sure, having a job that puts him near youngsters could help… but then, why are most of the teachers and professors seem to age quicker? The answer – look to the drill teachers and coaches. They don’t get old as fast, do they? The reason is obvious.

    I think it’s actually a balance of the exertions of both the mind and the body that maintains the perfect cell regeneration – or as perfect as it can be. Nobody lives forever, but that’s no argument to settle somewhere near that time just for old times’ sake!

    I am intrigued by that experiment you’ve mentioned. Hmm… I wonder what would have happened if that same experiment was performed on a bunch of senators?

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