Do your thoughts determine how you age? The answer is “Yes” according to Professor Ellen Langer. During the last forty-five years, this Harvard social psychologist has studied the way our mindset affects both our health and how we age. At the core of her work is unifying the mind and the body rather than how the conventional medical and psychological world typically treats each as separate. Langer is convinced that a unity offers a far better understanding and hope for making positive change. Fortunately, her studies provide us with plenty of science to back up her assertions.
For those who may not have read last week’s blog post, Ellen Langer teaches in the Psychology Department at Harvard University and is the first woman ever tenured there. She is the author of eleven published books and over 200 articles. Of all her work, the one titled Counterclockwise is the most influential and gets to the heart of her ideas about the mind/body connection.
Counterclockwise asks the question: Can you remember who you were and how you felt 20 years ago? And if yes, how might that influence your body and mind today? With those questions in mind, Langer and her students recruited two groups of older senior men in their late 70’s to early 80s. Back in 1979, this was when 80 really meant 80—so these guys were truly old. None of these men lived alone making them dependent on either a family member or a nursing home facility. Many walked with a cane and all needed a support system for the majority of their needs.
Before the study began each man was carefully tested for what was considered to be biomarkers for age at that time—everything from memory and cognition, to flexibility, dexterity, grip strength, and of course their hearing and vision. Even their mental state was recorded.
Then Langer divided the 16 men into two groups and at separate times took them to a retreat center that had been carefully replicated to look exactly as it would have 20 years earlier—1959. Everything in the retreat center was meticulously designed to ensure that nothing in the house appeared older than 1959; the black and white television in the living area, the appliances in the kitchen, and the magazines on the coffee tables. All records in the record player came from 1959 or earlier, and all the TV programs and movies came from that earlier period. Mirrors were removed and only clothing of the era was allowed.
Each man was told in advance that they would be part of a study, but not that the study had anything to do with aging. It was explained to the first group that their mission was to reminisce about the past. In contrast, the primary group was instructed to act as if it was actually 1959 in every way. They were encouraged to psychologically attempt to be the person they were 20 years earlier. They were also coached to only talk about events and happenings that had occurred in the world or to them, prior to 1959.
Also important was the fact that both groups were treated as though they were 20 years younger. They were required to carry their own luggage, help with dinner and cleanup, and make up their own rooms.
When the study concluded, they again tested all the men. Surprisingly, both groups of men (the control group and the primary group) registered noticeable improvement in some areas including hearing, vision, and memory. But, showing even more improvement were those in the primary group who also registered greater flexibility, faster gait, greater manual dexterity (where their fingers actually lengthened in spite of arthritis), and improved posture. Sixty-three percent of them scored higher on intelligence.
Also of note was the fact that although they had arrived extremely dependent upon either family or institutions to manage their needs, each man began functioning independently almost immediately upon arrival. Photos taken prior to the study and at the end, showing a visual difference. Independent observers rated the seniors, although still senior, as looking somewhat younger and more vibrant.
The results were so astounding that Langer hesitated to publish the outcome at the time, believing that she would not be taken seriously as a scientist if she did. However, ever since that time her research has continued to root out the numerous ways that our mindsets and thoughts influence our bodies.
The next study by Langer also confirmed the mind/body connection. Called the Chambermaid Study, this research shows that after hotel maids were educated to see how their daily actions could be perceived as healthy exercise—and with doing nothing different than just believing their work was indeed exercise—they lost weight, and their BMI and blood pressure improved. In other words, what people believe about their work and how they perceive exercise is connected to how their body responds.
Langer and her team then went on to study memory in a group of nursing home residents. First, everyone was given a memory test. Then ½ of the residents were asked to pay mindful attention to certain things in their home. To encourage that action they were offered incentives to recall certain things and events when asked. As Langer says, “Because they wanted the gifts, the information we asked them to track now mattered to them.”
After a three-week period they found that “when remembering mattered, memory improved.” But that wasn’t the only benefit, those offered incentives and instructed to be more mindful also became more cognitively aware—they paid better attention to other people around them, their rooms, and the nurses—and even increased their longevity in the years following the study.
Langer also reminds us of other research that demonstrates how our use of certain words has the power to “prime” us. After reading words associated with being old and aged, looking at photos of older people or items associated with advanced age, or doing tasks that focus us on what our society thinks it means to be older, we can prime ourselves so that our bodies respond in a slower and more limited fashion. Everything from the speed of our movements, to our eyesight, memory, and cognitive awareness can be affected.
And what about time? In one study Langer showed that when people are fooled into believing they didn’t get enough sleep, they did worse on memory tests. When they were fooled into believing they received more sleep than they actually did—they scored better. In addition, tests about blood glucose levels being affected by perceived time are also relevant. When subjects believed that time was faster than normal, their blood sugar spiked accordingly. When time was “slowed down,” the blood sugar responded in kind.
These, and nearly all of the studies done by Langer and her students demonstrate that if you can effectively change the mindset or perception of a person, you can often influence some of the physical responses in the person as well. This applies to the health of the individual, as well as how they age. One of Langer’s most well-known students, psychologist Beccy Levy, along with her colleagues claimed after a study, that “those who viewed aging more positively lived, on average, seven and a half years longer than those who were negative.” Other research titled the Berlin Aging Study “found that dissatisfaction with aging was one of the principle factors in how long people live.” Again, if we can adjust our mindset, we can influence our body in more ways than we normally realize.
Fortunately, as Langer asks, “if our beliefs have influence on our well-being, surely we can learn to influence our beliefs?” Of course, fundamental to that idea is that we must be willing to believe we have some control over our own health. How can we do that? Here are several things Langer believes is crucial:
- First, we must be mindful or aware of the world around us as much as possible. Langer recommends, “Pay attention to what is new.”
- Notice differences and variables instead of loss or decrements. Just because something changes doesn’t make it bad or wrong.
- Recognize that the world is designed by younger people with different capabilities—but rather than seeing lost capabilities as a physical problem—choose to see them as a design issue.
- Realize everything is contextual. Sometimes just changing the context opens up a world of possibility.
- Refuse to be merely a number or statistic. We are all unique and that includes what is happening to us on a physical level as well.
- Get second (or third) opinions on anything related to your health or important decisions—and then stay mindful and open about the answers.
- Refuse to be labeled—especially in a way that limits you or “primes” you to believe you can’t do something.
- Counteract negative stereotypes for aging or health. Refuse to be boxed in. “Change the game.”
- Stop associating pain or disability with age. Seek other explanations for what is happening and understand that issues can happen at most any age.
- Refused to be “over-helped.” Helplessness and dependence interfere with both our mental state and often our physical state as well.
As Langer says, “our attitudes, ideas, and beliefs are at least as important to health as our diets and our doctors.” Yet many of us continue to believe the stereotypes of aging or health conditions as one of decline, decay, and inevitable loss. Langer goes on to say, “Our mindless decisions—our deference to doctors’ opinions, our willingness to accept diagnoses, even the way we talk about our illnesses—can have drastic effects on our physical well-being.” For those of us who want to age in a positive and healthy way, it is SMART to remember how much our mindset plays in the process.