In 1991 I gave a presentation at a Mind/Body Medicine conference and was fortunate to hear one of the leaders in the field of holistic medicine, Deepak Chopra, MD, give a keynote presentation, that forever changed my life and in particular, my perception of “aging.” During his lecture, he discussed a remarkable 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 hotel 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, television shows, and discussed the politics and sports events of that time. The men were instructed to act as if they’d traveled back in time.
The researchers wanted to determine if their state of mind could produce measurable changes in their health.
Dr. Ellen Langer, a social psychologist and psychology professor reported the findings that were nothing short of remarkable. After 7 days, the men had more joint flexibility, increased movement, less arthritis in their hands. Their levels of intelligence and cognitive functions measurably improved, as had 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 reversed.
Hearing about this study forever changed the way I thought about aging. I knew that the mind played a role. I watched 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 victims of our own beliefs and stereotypes about aging and health. Without thought we accept the negative cues our culture gives about disease and “old age,” and these shape 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 surrounded 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
Pigeonhole 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.
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.
“Mindful health is not about how we should eat right, exercise, or follow medical recommendations, nor is it about abandoning these things. It is not about New Age medicine nor traditional understanding of illness. It is about the need to free ourselves from constricting mindsets and the limits they place on our health and well-being, and to appreciate the importance of becoming the guardians of our own health. Learning how to change requires understanding how we go astray. The goal of this book is to convince you to open your mind and take back what is rightfully, sensibly, and importantly yours.”