the beauty of forgetting your age (wise words from my “32” year old husband)

A couple of days ago I celebrated my 32nd birthday. I’m a spring chicken in the grand scheme of things, I s’ppose. But ever since my teens I’ve quietly hated my birthday. Oh I like the attention and all, but I’ve hated that the premise of said day is that I’m ageing. I’m getting older. Every birthday, for me anyway, has stood as a stark reminder that one day I’ll probably forget where I left my dentures.


Enter my dear husband, Dale. He’s 32. He’s been 32 for the past 6 years. Every year we celebrate his 32nd birthday. And he’s convinced that believing you are whatever age you want to be, or even better, forgetting about age completely and just living as you see fit, is the key to keeping sprightly. He’s so convinced himself that he’s 32, he has to calculate his biological age whenever he completes a legal form.

As it turns out, research suggests he might be on to something.

In 1979, Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychology professor, decked out a house in 1950s decor and invited a group of (rather sickly) men in their 70s or 80s to live in it for a week. They had to watch 1950s TV, wear 1950s clothing and act as if they were living in the '50s. Langer wanted to see if reconnecting the men with their younger selves (they men were around 20 years old in the ‘50s) would help to improve their health.

Did it work? Hell yeah. After just one week, Langer found the men displayed improved memory, IQ, vision, hearing, dexterity, blood pressure and fitness. They stopped using their walking sticks, were walking faster and were cooking their own meals. The men even appeared younger when before and after photos of them were compared. 

Langer suggests that simply thinking young can have a profound effect on not only how you feel but your physical health. She advises people not to dwell on the ageing process, believing much of the decline of old age may be driven by negative perceptions about our later years. Breaking these down can improve our health. “Don’t buy the mindset in the first place, then you won’t be vulnerable to it. I think we have far more control over our health and wellbeing than most of us realise.”

A second study by Langer revealed that cutting and colouring women’s hair not only made them feel younger, but reduced their blood pressure (hopefully it was natural colour, ahem). 

Another study by John Bargh, a social psychologist, showed that people who thought about words related to ageing slowed down after they did the test. 

So how does thinking young influence our physical health? In Think Yourself Young, Peter Baksa writes that our consciousness on the subject has everything to do with the way we age. Baksa spent time in China interviewing Tibetan monks, examining their daily rituals, diet and meditations. When he returned home he mirrored the behaviours and found that they did, indeed, reverse the ageing process. As Baksa writes, the latest neuroplasticity research shows our thoughts play a role in sculpting our brains, making new synaptic connections that can sharpen our minds and influence the overall health of our biology.

Thinking younger also makes you more likely to be physically active, eat better and socialise more. Common sense hey.

Needless to say, I’m adopting Dale's experiment.  Particularly true of Western societies, there’s a certain fear associated with ageing. It’s as if we’re resigned to ageing = illness. But the maths is rubbish. The Bluezones prove it’s rubbish. Experiments by Langer and others prove it’s rubbish. 

Thirty-two. Sure, I might stay here for a while.

How do you think about the ageing process? Think you can toss the idea of tracking your age aside?


6 comments:

  1. I really like this Maria. Surely we can extend it to general wellness too..?

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  2. “Don’t buy the mindset in the first place" agreed, but a real challenge.

    I've read about that experiment by Ellen Langer before and heard a harvard professor talking about it in a lecture series on ''positive" psychology on youtube (no longer available) - very interesting. It would be worth reading in full.

    I wonder if simply the novelty, increased attention, change of environment, the presence of some same-aged companions or the observer-expectancy effect alone made them feel better and younger, without all the effort to create a 50's environment. If they were removed from some dead-end and sterile
    nursing home that treated them lovelessly as valueless clients; or they came from isolated units or homes, then this would have been the case. But I'm sure they would have taken all that into consideration, had controls and got a wide cross section of elderly people involved.

    Apparently, based on a study i read about (but what makes common sense too), stripping the elderly of roles and responsibilities, even mundane ones, as happens in nursing homes also accelerates the process of ageing and on-set of death.

    I've also read it in many places now, and heard it said often enough about the sheer importance of human companionship, or even pets for wellbeing and longevity. Hence, I suppose, why the rugged individualism and the over-emphasis of materialism in Australian culture can be so destructive. Not to mention how Australian society, and western ones in general, segment and compartmentalise everything and so erode meaningful and integrated community life.

    It's often said too, that western culture adore's youth and people are valued for there productive output, unlike other cultures where the elderly are much more valued, but perhaps they're under-valued in most places. Maybe at the very least they still have more useful roles and responsibilities in tighter-nit communities of other cultures and this is conducive to wellbeing.

    I don't watch much tv, but if you, by chance, saw an episode of Compass (which, though enjoyable, had many drawbacks) where a young Christian woman swapped homes with a young Hindu man you'd have seen an example of the deep respect shown to grandparents in a Hindu family.

    There was another interesting study, if i remember correctly, involving a group of women who were cleaners I think in a hospital or hotel. Some were taught about the physical benefits of the work they did and that it was the equivalent of such and such a work-out. The cleaners who went to work with this renewed outlook were found, after a certain period, to have measurable improvements to their fitness and health, in contrast to the women who went to work as normal.

    I make a point of not asking people their age, and really enjoy friendships across the spectrum of ages.

    I'm an irrationalist in the philosophical sense of the word (not opposed to logic), which in my case as a Christian (not at all a hip faith to associate with these days - far from it), means i believe in the great day of resurrection and the new heaven and earth (or renewed earth as the ancient Greek carries both meanings) where death is no more (though this doesn't give licence to trash this earth). So I don't worry about death or ageing for that reason (though i can still suffer from vanity).

    Yes those beliefs sound fanciful and absurd, but then there is no privileged ontology, in that no ontology can be grounded without succumbing to circular logic or infinite regress. Although some, especially those enchanted by the success of 'science', think that they are free from all faith based claims and irrationalist foundations of knowing, when on closer inspection it's not the case.

    ...anyway, I can imagine your grand children, if you ever have them, giggling with delight as eccentric old Nanna and Papa blow out the candles at their 32nd birthday parties - wonderful (just thought i'd finish with another set of parentheses). ph

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    Replies
    1. Love your thoughtful response, thank you! And yes, we probably will be those eccentric grandparents :)

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    2. I'm a bit eccentric myself so it was a compliment, or, at the least, i try to resist my tendency to want to hide away in the crowd. As they say insanity is a mark of sanity in a world gone insane.

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  3. I was 24 for ages. In fact it got to the point that my younger sister became my twin and then my older sister - which was a bit confusing. It only stopped when I decided I should embrace being 30. These days I'm much more comfortable with my age.

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  4. I'm 31 this year and I tell people I am still around 27-28. It helps I only look that age as well I have no wrinkles or jowls yet, so no one bats an eye. Who wants to be considered middle aged? Middle aged does not have a pretty sound to it. Forever Young I say!

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