This article is the third in a series about how our attitudes, beliefs and mindset can affect our health. There is a fascinating and growing body of evidence that there is a much stronger relationship between our minds and our bodies than perhaps we have been lead to believe. I hope that these articles stimulate some new thoughts and ideas for you, or perhaps shore up what you already knew. I’ve included a list of further reading at the end of each article too, for those who want to look into this in more detail.
So far in this series we’ve looked specifically at how mindset might effect your physical fitness and your body’s response to the food you eat. This time we’re tackling the effects of mindset on ageing.
It’s a fairly entrenched assumption that certain things go along with ageing: loss of strength and physical capabilities, development of arthritis and chronic pain, poorer immunity, loss of memory and mental acuity, onset of any number of different chronic illnesses such as hypertension, heart disease, cancer, etc. In general, increasing frailty as the years go by.
Did you know that if you ask doctors and scientists what the specific markers of age are (what could they measure to reliably - or even unreliably - estimate someone’s age) you would be told that there are none. Sure, all of the conditions mentioned above could be said to occur more with age, but they are not caused by age. If they were, you could count on them occurring in most if not all people as they age. But they don’t.
Let me say that again - the probability of certain conditions and diseases occurring as you age may statistically increase, but they are not necessarily caused by the ageing process.
And no-one can reliably say what the “ageing process” actually is…
In the early 80s there was a fascinating study published by Professor Ellen Langer of Harvard University called the Counterclockwise Study, in which a number of elderly men were placed in an environment where they were surrounded only with things from over 20 years previously - pictures, music, food, magazines, newspapers, movies. They were asked to conduct themselves as though they were in fact back in 1959. They were told not to talk about anything that occurred after 1959, and were to discuss friends and family without any of the context that occurred after that date. They were to discuss music, literature, movies, and current events from 1959 as though they were occurring now. In contrast, a control group was surrounded by the same memorabilia from 1959, but were asked to reminisce about that time.
Certain physical markers were measured before and after, including hearing, vision, manual dexterity, and memory. All were seen to improve in the group that conducted themselves as though it were the late 50s. None were seen to improve in the control group, and some actually demonstrated deterioration. The concept was to trick the mind into associating back to a time 20 years previously, and see if the body would consequently change too. It did.
This study was repeated in various other countries with a range of other participants, with similar results each time.
Other studies have identified that the internalised beliefs we hold about ageing will influence how we age. If in our youth we are surrounded by beliefs that old age goes hand in hand with physical frailty, senility, poor quality of life, etc, then we will internalise those beliefs. Then, when we ourselves reach old age, we will apply those beliefs to our own circumstances and expect to become frail and dependent ourselves. If we develop views of old age as being a time of ongoing growth and vitality, then we will expect to remain healthy, active and capable into old age, and we probably will. What this points to is the way our thoughts, beliefs and expectations shape the way our bodies function. It also begs us to ask what images of old age we are surrounded by, and what can we do to foster positive beliefs about ageing.
This is about the process of being mindful. I discussed the idea of mindfulness in the first article about mindset and health, but let’s have another look at it. Ellen Langer talks about the contrast between living mindlessly and applying mindfulness to your life. In this context mindfulness is not quite the same as the eastern philosophical principle you can practice with meditation, although there are correlations. Instead it is about being aware of novelty from moment to moment, and retaining awareness of circumstance and context. Mindlessly approaching old age with internalised negative beliefs about growing old may result in creating self-fulfilling prophecies. You may, for example, find yourself focussing on worrying instances such as a moment of forgetfulness, and extrapolating that out to mean that you are loosing your memory, when it may in fact not signify that at all. However, given that there is increasing evidence that our mindset has a stronger influence on our physiology than perhaps we have previously thought, such worries and fears may result in the very declining health that we want to avoid. Being mindful of all the factors in a given context, including the operation of any pre-existing beliefs and mindsets we may hold, plus whether for example our moment of forgetfulness actually simply means that we are tired, allows us to be the architects of our ageing more consciously.
That was a bit of a mouthful. Suffice it to say, this is a big topic, and I can’t really hope to do it justice in a few paragraphs. Let’s boil it down to this - be careful, deliberate and conscious about the beliefs you choose about ageing and your health.
If you want to delve into this deeper, check out Ellen Langer taking about mindfulness here (she talks specifically about mindsets and health from about 13:30 onwards).
Ellen Langer’s books are also worth a read: “Mindfulness” and “Counterclockwise”. Her books are readily available through most booksellers, and she has more information about them on her website.
Next time I’m going to have a look at how mindset may be relevant to healthcare.