By Marc Sidwell, former head of personal finance, The Daily Telegraph
The evidence is mounting that you can think yourself old. The good news is that it also works the other way around. In the 1980s, Ellen Langer of Harvard ran an eccentric study on a group of pensioners.
Langer rented a New Hampshire monastery and prepared it by removing all mirrors and installing photos of her subjects when they were young, along with decor, music and other cultural ephemera from the late 1950s.
Then she brought in her subjects and gave them one instruction: while they were there, they should behave like they were two decades younger. The results were astonishing. After less than a week, their joints were more flexible, the arthritis in their hands had reduced.
When people were shown photographs taken at the end of the study, they judged those who had lived in the time-travel monastery to be younger than control subjects of the same biological age.
Langer’s work comes up in a fascinating New Scientist article by David Robson called ‘Mind over Matter’. Robson claims that the research shows those who view ageing positively live almost eight years longer than those who associate it with frailty and senility.
If that’s true, the recent rise of popular entertainment which offers an active take on old age — from Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Han Solo in the new Star Wars franchise to Linda Hamilton’s reprise as Sarah O’Connor in her sixties — may be more valuable than we can possibly imagine.
Because simply changing our beliefs about old age really can make us healthier. Robson cites a recent study by Becca Levy at the Yale School of Public Health. Levy used a computer game on subjects aged 61-99 to improve their perceptions of ageing. As their mindset became less negative, their health improved as well — incredibly, four sessions of the game produced more physical improvement than a six-month fitness protocol.
Ageing is real and unavoidable, but the research of Langer and Levy, among others, suggests that our negative mental models can make ageing worse. As we confront the problems of an ageing society, resisting cultural cliches that focus on the frailties of old age may be as vital as more conventional public health campaigns. And it raises the wider question: where else in our lives are our mental models leaving us worse off?
If you want to read more about Ellen Langer’s work, she wrote a fascinating book called Counterclockwise.