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Back in 1979, psychologist Ellen Langer at Harvard University conducted a rather unusual experiment. She asked a group of 70 and 80 year-olds to complete various tests to assess their cognitive and physical abilities. They then took a week-long retreat at a monastery, at the end of which the participants took the tests again. But this was no ordinary holiday – the living environment at the monastery had been carefully set up to simulate life in the late 1950s. Everything from the magazines in the living room to the music playing on the radio had all been selected to help the participants pretend that they were living in the 1950s, and the researchers asked them to do exactly that. Participants were encouraged to live as if it were 1959 and to behave as if they were 20 years younger. They even discussed the political and sporting events of 1959 as if they were current events, and avoided talking about more recent occurrences.
As a control group, the researchers then ran the experiment again with a new group of participants. This group was only asked to reminisce about the past, not to pretend they were actually experiencing it. At the end of the experiments, both groups showed some improvements in their testing results, but it was the first group that benefitted the most. Nearly two thirds of them had improved cognitive scores, and the group even experienced sharper vision and reduced inflammation in their arthritic joints.
This is of course just one experiment, and with a small sample size at that. However, Dr Langer’s study isn’t the only research linking our mindset towards ageing with our physical health. Multiple studies over the years have found that positive attitudes towards ageing correlate with improved health outcomes. In one of the earliest such studies, it was found that those who had negative perceptions of ageing at the start of the study (such as believing people become ‘less useful’ as they age) had lifespans 7.6 years shorter on average compared with those with positive attitudes, even after controlling for factors like age, health status and socioeconomic background. Later studies also found that even attitudes towards ageing expressed in people’s mid-30s, long before quality of life has been impacted by age-related disease, could predict future health outcomes.
The idea that we might be able to ‘think ageing away’ might seem a little too good to be true. Yet to those familiar with the placebo effect and its evil brother the nocebo, the idea that a purely psychological factor can profoundly affect our health might not seem so alien. The question is: how?
The most mundane explanation is that positive attitudes and self perceptions of ageing are linked to healthier behaviours. If people see themselves as less capable in old age, they may be less likely to attempt strenuous exercise for example, or they may stop caring about their health because they feel it’s not worth the effort. This probably contributes at least partially to the effects of negative attitudes to old age, but there’s another possible explanation, one directly linking psychology to biological processes believed to play a fundamental role in ageing: stress.
When people experience a challenging environment, they tend to experience stronger biological stress responses when they believe themselves less capable of overcoming said challenge. This is supported in the context of ageing by studies showing that those primed with negative stereotypes of ageing develop higher systolic blood pressure in response to stressors. There is evidence that chronic stress contributes to accelerated ageing, including through inflammation, epigenetic alterations and telomere attrition. There is even some evidence that negative attitudes to ageing correlate with shorter telomere lengths in populations that are at increased risk of stress.
Regardless of what the mechanisms are, there is an important lesson to be learnt here: mindsets towards the ageing process, both our own and those of society at large, can have profound effects on our health. When it comes to ageing well, we tend to overemphasise more tangible factors such as diet, physical activity and medication, while psychological well-being is ‘placed in a separate box’. In reality, psychology is a subset of biology that has the power to influence every aspect of our physical health, from our blood pressure to the state of the DNA itself.
So, what are you waiting for? Delete your social media accounts, ditch your smartphone, and get ready to spend an hour trying to recover your AOL password. Brazil just won the world cup (again) and How You Remind Me is playing on the radio. It’s time to party like it’s 2002.
Can you think yourself young? https://www.theguardian.com/science/2022/jan/02/can-you-think-yourself-young-ageing-psychology
Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging: https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-832261.pdf
Age Stereotypes Held Earlier in Life Predict Cardiovascular Events in Later Life: https://doi.org/10.1111%2Fj.1467-9280.2009.02298.x
Influence of African American elders' age stereotypes on their cardiovascular response to stress: https://doi.org/10.1080/10615800701727793
Psychological and biological resilience modulates the effects of stress on epigenetic aging: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-021-01735-7
Negative age stereotypes’ association with accelerated cellular aging: Evidence from two cohorts of older adults: https://dx.doi.org/10.1111%2Fjgs.14452