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Is ageing ‘all in the mind’? A round up of some of the most important Mind/Body medicine research in the anti-ageing field

Ageing is a really intriguing topic – we all age differently – some more successfully than others.  Ageing is a holistic phenomenon – because we humans are such complex biological systems – and we have these tricky things called ‘minds’ too, which further complicate matters. Most of the really compelling research into successful, health ageing and even biological age reversal, centres around the idea that much of the cause of (and cure for) ageing and decline into illness – is a social construct.  In most industrialised nations, people believe – because they have been brought up to adhere to society’s mores – that at age 40 we start to become an upper-middle aged person, at age 50 we should be developing the beginnings of some of the diseases of ageing, at 60 these conditions should be starting to be apparent, at 70 we really start to slow down and at 80+ we are getting old decrepit and ready for the grave.  Of course, these illustrations are simple clichés and there will always be variation, but in the main, they do tend to hold true.  Happily though, research shows us that decline into old age is not inevitable – it is actually avoidable and even reversible.

Ellen Langer PhD, a professor of psychology from Harvard Medical School is well known for running several ground-breaking and thought-provoking experiments. The central tenet of much of Langer’s work is that she believes that “Social conditions may foster what may erroneously appear to be necessary consequences of aging.” (Langer in “Old Age: An Artefact?”, a 1981 book chapter), in other words, we age because society expects us to. 

Langer’s experiments clearly show that given the right circumstances, we can reverse a person’s age – not chronologically, of course, but biologically.  The surprising truth is that your real (biological) age can be very easily manipulated.  In fact, Langer believes that we have almost complete mental control over our diseases.  And these diseases include the conditions we perceive to be an inevitable counterpart to ageing.  Here are a few of Langer’s most intriguing experiments that really indicate that ageing really is ‘all in the mind’.

Do balding men develop prostate cancer – because they expect to?

There is a strong link between a certain type of male-pattern baldness and an increase in the risk of prostate cancer. (Prostate cancer is more common in older men.) Langer and her colleagues believe that this could occur because balding men feel older; every time they look in a mirror, they get a glaring visual reminder that they appear to be aging. In addition, some heart problems are also linked with balding despite there being no obvious biological rationale for any connection between hair loss and heart disease, and this is why the researchers hypothesise that the men’s own mind-sets about their age could be partly responsible. Similarly, in another experiment, women who had new hairstyles which they thought made them look younger actually appeared to be younger to experimental observers.

The Counter Clockwise study – total immersion in order to reverse biological age

One of the most influential and intriguing studies by Langer and her colleagues in the 1970s is the now very famous “Counter Clockwise” study. Langer et al hypothesised that by immersing a group of elderly men in an environment where all sensory clues pointed to a time (the late 1950s) when they felt at their very best, the men might get biologically younger. The men spent the week immersed in paraphernalia from twenty years earlier, they listened to radio shows from that time, and discussed news from the period. They were not allowed to bring up any events that happened after 1959, and they were asked to refer to themselves, their families, and their careers as they were at that time.

This immersion in sensory cues from the time sent signals to the body which resulted in the manifestation of both the energetic responses and biological profile of a much younger person. The men, by “acting as if” they were still in their late fifties and early sixties, actually changed their performance on benchmark tests of age. By the end of the study, the experimental group demonstrated marked improvement in their hearing, eyesight, memory, dexterity and appetite. Those who had arrived using canes, and were dependent on the aid of their children, walked out under their power, and were able to carry their own suitcases.

Langer believes that by expecting these men to function independently and engaging with them as independent individuals rather than as old people, she and her students gave them the opportunity to view themselves differently. This, then, had a huge impact on them biologically.

The Young Ones

In a BBC Horizon programme, six well-loved British celebrities who were house-hold names in the 1970s – Liz Smith, Lionel Blair, Dickie Bird, Sylvia Syms, Derek Jameson and Kenneth Kendal – were taken back to this time by immersing them into a fully 1970s environment for a week – when they felt that they were at their ‘prime’. They had to lug their own suitcases upstairs, had to cook for themselves, navigate their way through shag-pile carpet to change the television channel, cope with standard 70s psychedelic wall-paper, consume the now legendary “Vesta” Chow Mein – and all other sensory input was from that time – including having pictures of themselves and their families on display. 

As with Langer’s first group in the Counter Clockwise study, this group benefitted from the most incredible biological age rewind. Astonishingly, the group became physically and psychologically younger. Their hearing, grip strength and manual dexterity improved. Memory and IQ scores also improved. Balance improved dramatically and they even became taller – all in just one week. In fact, Dr Michael Mosely, who hosted the programme said; “The changes were amazing. And I’m not easily amazed.”

Because the celebrities’ minds were actively engaged in living 20 years earlier, their bodies seemed to follow. Langer believes this profound – and extremely rapid – age reversal is a demonstration of how our bodies don’t let us down as we get older, but our minds accept the labels of aging. Freeing ourselves from that state of mind can turn back the clock.

The effect of speeding up or slowing down time

Another intriguing example of how profoundly our minds affect our biology comes from a study on people with Type 2 diabetics.  Once again Dr Langer hypothesised that our mind has much more control of our body than most people believe.  In this experiment, she and her colleagues wanted to find out whether the mind can affect blood sugar levels in people with Type 2 diabetes, by asking them to perform simple tasks for a period of 90 minutes. The 46 participants’ perception of time was manipulated by having them refer to clocks that were either accurate or altered to run fast or slow. Blood glucose levels changed in accordance with how much time they believed had passed instead of how much time had actually passed. These results are an example of the influence psychological processes can directly exert on the body.

Believing you are exercising confers the benefits of exercise – in the real world

Langer and one of her students, Alia Crum, conducted a study, published in the journal Psychological Science, which involved 84 hotel chambermaids. All the women had stated that they didn’t feel that they got much exercise in a typical week. Two groups were formed randomly; one was an experimental group and the other a control group.  The women in the experimental group were primed by the researchers to think differently about their work by informing them that cleaning rooms was fairly serious exercise – that they were doing as much if not more exercise than the USA’s Surgeon General’s recommendations. The women in the control group were not similarly primed – and both groups just got on with their jobs as normal. Once their expectations were shifted, the maids who were told that they were doing lots of exercise lost weight, and also improved on other measures like body mass index and hip-to-waist ratio.  Nothing changed in the control group. Everything else being equal, the only difference between the two groups was the change in mind-set.

Pilots have better eyesight!

Two groups of people were asked to go into a flight simulator. The first group was instructed to think of themselves as Air Force pilots and they were even provided with real flight suits to wear while they guided a simulated flight. The second group was informed that the simulator was out of order and that they should just pretend to fly the plane. After the tests, the researchers gave each group an eyesight test. Incredibly, the group of people who piloted the flight performed 40 percent better than the group who were informed that the simulator was broken.

Mind-set manipulation works – your thoughts and beliefs can make you biologically younger

So if Langer and her colleagues are correct, and feeling, looking and behaving more youthfully makes you healthier, what can you do about it? Langer has solution, she says: “Don’t buy the mindset in the first place. Then you won’t be vulnerable to it,” she states. “I think we have far more control over our health and wellbeing than most of us realize.

My advice is to incorporate as many “youth cues” into your life as you can.  Whenever you have the opportunity, listen (and dance!) to the music you adored when you were a teenager/young adult – and were biologically in your prime. Spend time looking back at your pin-ups from the era – try not to laugh – this is doing you good. Enrol some of your friends of a similar age and have a ‘Rewind Party’ where you play that music you all loved (think school disco!), talk about who you fancied then, bands, fashion, get some back copies of “Jackie” or “Smash Hits” and even dress the part – honestly, it all helps.  Do let your friends in on why you are doing this though – it may make things go more smoothly – and of course they too will reap the anti-ageing benefits of your wild (yet strangely effective) anti-ageing experiment.

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Don Storey
Don Storey
1 month ago

im 58 i run every day 4 miles after work ive always said the mind rules the body people tend to give up on life as we get older thinking i will start to get pains etc you bring it on yourself because you give in to age remenber the mind is you dont listen to people who say your getting old

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