Counterclockwise Aging

Your beliefs affect how you age—for better or worse

You can adopt a positive mindset about getting older

In 1979, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer and colleagues created a study whose outcomes were so astounding that she hesitated to publish them fearing that she would be castigated. In 2009, Langer summarized this study in her intriguing book, Counterclockwise. What became known as the counterclockwise study sought to determine if turning back the clock 20 years psychologically would improve the physiology of older men. The study included two groups of eight elderly men (late seventies and early eighties) who spent separate weeks at a retreat center in New Hampshire.

For the experimental (counterclockwise) group, the researchers transformed retreat center to resemble as closely as possible what it might have been in 1959. The rooms of the center featured photographs of notables and the participants at that time, music, furniture, magazines, sports news, television programs, and games from 1959. The men were asked to live for a week as if they were back in 1959 and to talk with others about topics relevant to 1959. The men in the control group experienced largely the same décor at the retreat center as the men in the counterclockwise group, except that these men’s bios were written in the past tense and their pictures were of the present. These men were asked to reminisce about 1959 but not to imagine that they were living in 1959.

The leaders of the study let the participants do as they pleased and did not attempt to improve the physical and mental capabilities of men in either group. After one week, men in both groups showed improvements in physical strength, manual dexterity, gait, posture, memory, cognition, taste sensitivity, hearing, and vision. Quite an impressive list! But the men in the counterclockwise group, who imagined being themselves living in 1959 during their week, showed greater improvements. All of the participants were photographed at the beginning and end of their week. Researchers with no knowledge of the study rated the pictures of the men in the counterclockwise group as two years younger at the end of the study compared to the beginning relative to the men in the control group. Langer attributed the improvements of the men in the counterclockwise group to developing a more positive mindset about aging. Mindset refers to the sum of the beliefs we have about ourselves.

Langer and colleagues conducted studies of the placebo effect. It rests on the idea that positive expectations about medical procedures (or anything, for that matter) accounts for a substantial portion of beneficial outcomes. To test the idea that exercise affects health partially through positive expectations, Langer and a colleague recruited 84 cleaning attendants at seven urban hotels. Typical work tasks involved walking, bending, lifting and shoving furniture, and carrying trash bags—clearly meeting the US Surgeon General’s recommended minimum of 150 minutes of weekly moderate-intensity physical activity.

Forty-four subjects in the “informed” group were told that their work activity was good exercise and that it met the recommended minimum level of weekly exercise. Forty subjects in the “uninformed” group were not told this. All the subjects were told about the general benefits of exercise. Baseline health measures indicated that the subjects’ perception of their health was worse than it actually was and that they were unaware of the health benefits of their work. After one month, subjects in the informed group showed a significant increase in their perception of their work as exercise compared to the uninformed subjects. Furthermore, the informed subjects had improved measures of health—body weight, body-mass index, percentage of body fat, waist-hip ratio, and blood pressure—compared to the uninformed subjects. This even though the participants did not report increased amounts of physical activity during the previous month. Thus, simply reframing beliefs about work as exercise may lead to improved physiological health.

Part of developing a positive mental attitude involves developing positive thoughts and beliefs about growing older. However, American cultural norms do not often support positive thoughts and beliefs about aging. In 2002, researchers re-examined data from an earlier study to determine whether negative perceptions toward aging could affect longevity. Researchers previously contacted nearly all residents of Oxford, Ohio, who were cognitively intact and at least 50 years of age. Five hundred sixty people between ages 50 and 94 at baseline were followed for an average of 23 years. Now get this: Participants with a high positive self-perception of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than participants with a low positive self-perception of aging. An astounding difference! Attitude had a greater effect on longevity than did reducing blood pressure or cholesterol! Read that again! If a big pharmaceutical company developed a pill that increased longevity by 7.5 years with no side effects, it would make a fortune. But you don’t need a pill, do you? You can change your beliefs about getting older to focus on its positive possibilities.

Aging portends change but not necessarily decay. Ellen Langer notes what while some elders experience disabilities that may reflect natural aging, many disabilities do not. Rather, they reflect our mindset, especially positive and negative stereotypes of aging. Many older people accept negative stereotypes of aging held by society. That acceptance can favor these paths: 1) self-fulfilling prophesies in which negative expectations manifest in unhealthy behaviors, 2) interpreting ambiguous information as evidence of physical or mental decline, 3) interacting with other elders who’ve adopted negative stereotypes of aging in a misery-loves-company manner, and 4) feelings of dependence or loss of control over one’s life that may foster learned helplessness.

Your beliefs and your mindset greatly affect your life experience. You can alter your beliefs and create a positive mindset about aging from one of decay to one of wonderful possibilities. Even if many elders withdraw from life or become sedentary or experience chronic conditions, those outcomes don’t have to happen to you. You don’t want to define yourself in terms of what you can’t do anymore. Rather, focus on what you can do. You can develop the belief that you can largely control your own healthy making healthy lifestyle choices. You can create the mindset that you can embrace life to the fullest, keep physically and mentally active, and avoid or at least postpone chronic conditions until the last few years of your wonderful life. Why not start now? You can hike the Appalachian Trail in your seventies like this guy did.

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