“Age is just a number.” “You’re only as old as you feel.” “Age is a state of mind.” Such clichés may seem trite, but there’s more and more evidence that these sentiments about aging may be quite accurate.
A man-made time warp
Ellen Langer is a renowned Harvard social psychologist who has been researching the mind-body connection for more than three decades. Perhaps most notably, in 1979, she conducted the so-called “Counterclockwise Study.”
For this research, Langer studied eight men in their 70s who lived in a specially designed residential retreat in New Hampshire that was a recreation of a social-physical environment from 20 years earlier — the year 1959. Books, TV shows, music all evoked life in 1959 when the men had been in their 50s.
The men in the experimental group were told to not just reminisce about life 20 years earlier, but to actually act as if it were 1959. They were told to speak about historical events from that time period and use the present tense about them as though they were just happening. A control group lived in a similar environment but didn’t behave as if it were two decades earlier.
The experimental and control participants were assessed for hearing, memory, dexterity, appetite, and general well-being prior to and after residing in this time warp-like setting for one week.
The impact on the aging process
All of the men in both groups showed improvement to all of the study’s measures after the week, but the improvements were particularly notable for the experimental group that had acted as though they were actually living in 1959.
Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of the experimental group had better test scores at the end of the experiment as compared to 44 percent in the control group. Objective observers noted that the men in the experimental group even looked younger in before and after photographs.
Of course, this Counterclockwise Study was a very small, homogenous sample — just a handful of men — but other similar studies have had parallel results. For example, one longitudinal study surveyed 650 people about their views on aging. Researchers checked back with participants 20 years later, and those who had had more positive feelings about aging had lived an average of seven years longer than those with negative attitudes about growing older.
Still another study found attitudes about aging can have an impact on people in a very short period of time. Researchers had study participants read a list of words with negative connotations about aging. Within just 15 minutes of reading those negative words, the participants were walking more slowly than they previously had.
Putting a positive spin on aging
Of course, age isn’t entirely in your head. There are lifestyle choices that can dramatically impact your health, how you feel, and ultimately your lifespan. For instance, people can extend their lifespan by around four years by taking steps to lower their blood pressure and cholesterol levels. But research like the Counterclockwise Study shows that the mind does indeed have a great deal of control over the body.
Dr. Manfred Diehl is a professor of human development and family studies at Colorado State University focused on successful and healthy aging. He has extensively researched adults’ perceptions and understanding of their own aging process. He also has examined how adjusting middle-aged and older adults’ negative views on aging can encourage the adoption of behaviors that are known to promote more positive aging.
The positive aging checklist
This is Dr. Diehl’s list of ways seniors can adopt a healthier mindset about the aging process.
- Stay physically active: Diehl suggests doing at least 30 minutes of movement or exercise daily.
- Exercise your brain: Engage in mentally challenging activities, and never stop learning new things.
- Adopt an overall healthy lifestyle: Diehl advises eating healthfully, getting enough sleep, managing weight, and not drinking in excess or smoking.
- Stay connected to other people: Nurture positive relationships with your spouse or partner, family, friends, neighbors, and others in your community, including young people.
- Create positive emotions for yourself: Diehl recommends practicing positive emotion exercises and teaching yourself to feel good about your age.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff: There are certain tasks that get more challenging with age. Make it your mantra to accept what you can no longer do, and ask for help when needed.
- Set goals for yourself: It’s always the right time to establish a positive goal, and then take control of the steps needed to make it a reality.
- Minimize life stress: Stress is a part of life, but it shouldn’t control you. Dr. Diehl urges people to learn to relax and unwind by practicing healthy coping techniques.
- Have regular medical check-ups: Stay on top of preventative health screenings, and engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors.
Making “positive” senior living choices
As you consider your senior living options, it is worth keeping both the Counterclockwise Study and Dr. Diehl’s positive aging checklist in mind.
For instance, could there be “anti-aging” benefits that come with living in a senior living community that emphasizes the importance of a healthy lifestyle and nurtures interpersonal relationships? Is it possible that opting to live in a community with other active seniors who are enjoying their retired life might actually slow down the aging process? It’s worth considering the possibilities!