Ageing is a subject that has fascinated people throughout history – and the search for an elixir of youth continues in laboratories throughout the world. But what if the real secret to how we age is something we already have within us? What if the way we view ageing – and our expectations of what ageing will bring, are the real key to determining how we will experience our senior years? Sounds unlikely?
A famous study by Harvard Psychologist Ellen Langer in the 1970s shows just how much influence behavioural and psychological factors have over our physical well-being in old age.
The focus of Langer’s study was group of elderly men who had been living in care homes and receiving a high level of care. She took them to location which had been designed to be exactly as it would have been twenty years earlier in 1959. Everything, including the televisions and the programmes available on them, was authentic.
The men were to live there for a week by themselves, with no carers and required to undertake all tasks themselves – including moving their suitcases into their rooms and cooking their own meals. Langer admitted some initial concerns due to the level of care that they had previously been receiving and their apparent levels of dependency upon this care.
However, within a day, they started to manage well. At the end of the week the results turned out to be astonishing – the men had improved posture and mobility, their joints were more flexible and their arthritis had improved. Their cognitive function was measurably better and, possibly most surprisingly of all, their eyesight had improved!
When photographs were shown to objective observers, the men were perceived to look younger than those in the control group. This was after just one week. Langer has done other studies since which support this and suggest that the strongest factor in remaining fit and active in old age is having control over one’s own life.
Studies from other teams point to the same conclusion: the key factors to well-being in old age are:
- having a positive attitude to ageing
- being able to make decisions
- being in control of your own life.
Take these things away, and old-age is more likely to be accompanied by a decline in both mental and physical health.
Perhaps we should now revisit how we perceive and treat the elderly in our families and in society as a whole. The evidence suggests that if we stereotype old age as a time of helplessness and almost childlike dependency, then we create a self-fulfilling prophesy. I doubt it is a co-incidence that those societies in which a fit and healthy old age is common, is those in which it is most respected and valued.
No-one’s suggesting that we can stay young forever, just that we have more influence over how we experience ageing than we might have thought – and that has to be a good thing!
Langer has written about her work and what it tells us about the potential of our psychology to influence our well-being and ageing process in the book Counterclockwise.