To some extent at least, we can act as if age is a mindset. Do you know about Ellen Langer’s brilliant experiment in the 1970s? She took some people in their 70s to a secluded spot (for a research project, not a kidnapping…). It was a bit like a big cabin in the woods. The whole environment was set up to mimic their lives twenty years earlier, and for a week they lived in a 1950s time warp – food, activities, media, all one big blast from the past. They were treated as people in their 50s and encouraged to act as such. And when they left their cabin a week later, guess what? Their blood pressure, physical mobility, appearance, in fact most of the biomarkers of ageing, had all changed for the better, in real and measurable ways.

In 2010, Michael Mosley, the BBC medicine and science expert joined with Langer to repeat the experiment and film it as a TV series (The Young Ones, worth watching). The results were similar and the commentary by the participants as well as by the experts makes for riveting viewing. Follow-ups with participants three months later were encouraging as to durability of the effects.

Langer has done other groundbreaking research on the impact of positive or negative mindsets on ageing. For example, she did research in a nursing home where some residents were given control over who visited them and when; they were also given a pot plant and told they were responsible for its care. The control group were also given a plant, but told that a nurse would take care of it for them. 18 months later, less than half as many of the more engaged group had died than had those in the control group. Langer concluded that the small changes she implemented had changed the residents’ mindsets and given them a sense of control over their lives.

So, let’s remember that cabin in the woods, and refuse the rocking chair!

Joanna Maxwell


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