The Situationist

The Situation of Health and Aging

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 1, 2009

Ellen Langer three-nancysSituationist friend Ellen Langer‘s latest book, “Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility,”  is out, and Wray Herbert recently wrote a terrific review of it for Newsweek, which we have digested below.

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Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer [conducted] a study . . . with a group of elderly men some years ago, retrofitting an isolated old New England hotel so that every visible sign said it was 20 years earlier. The men—in their late 70s and early 80s—were told not to reminisce about the past, but to actually act as if they had traveled back in time. The idea was to see if changing the men’s mindset about their own age might lead to actual changes in health and fitness.

Langer’s findings were stunning: After just one week, the men in the experimental group (compared with controls of the same age) had more joint flexibility, increased dexterity and less arthritis in their hands. Their mental acuity had risen measurably, and they had improved gait and posture. Outsiders who were shown the men’s photographs judged them to be significantly younger than the controls. In other words, the aging process had in some measure been reversed.

Langer and her Harvard colleagues have been running similarly inventive experiments for decades, and the accumulated weight of the evidence is convincing. Her theory, argued in her new book, “Counterclockwise,” is that we are all victims of our own stereotypes about aging and health. We mindlessly accept negative cultural cues about disease and old age, and these cues shape our self-concepts and our behavior. If we can shake loose from the negative clichés that dominate our thinking about health, we can “mindfully” open ourselves to possibilities for more productive lives even into old age.

Consider another of Langer’s mindfulness studies, this one using an ordinary optometrist’s eye chart. That’s the chart with the huge E on top, and descending lines of smaller and smaller letters that eventually become unreadable. Langer and her colleagues wondered: what if we reversed it? The regular chart creates the expectation that at some point you will be unable to read. Would turning the chart upside down reverse that expectation, so that people would expect the letters to become readable? That’s exactly what they found. The subjects still couldn’t read the tiniest letters, but when they were expecting the letters to get more legible, they were able to read smaller letters than they could have normally. Their expectation—their mindset—improved their actual vision . . . .

Most people try to dress appropriately for their age, so clothing in effect becomes a cue for ingrained attitudes about age. But what if this cue disappeared? Langer decided to study people who routinely wear uniforms as part of their work life, and compare them with people who dress in street clothes. She found that people who wear uniforms missed fewer days owing to illness or injury, had fewer doctors’ visits and hospitalizations, and had fewer chronic diseases—even though they all had the same socioeconomic status. That’s because they were not constantly reminded of their own aging by their fashion choices. The health differences were even more exaggerated when Langer looked at affluent people: presumably the means to buy even more clothes provides a steady stream of new aging cues, which wealthy people internalize as unhealthy attitudes and expectations.

We are surrounded every day by subtle signals that aging is an undesirable period of decline. These signals make it difficult to age gracefully. Similar signals also lock all of us—regardless of age—into pigeonholes for disease. We are too quick to accept diagnostic categories like cancer and depression, and let them define us.  . . .  [W]ith a little mindfulness, we can try to embrace uncertainty and understand that the way we feel today may or may not connect to the way we will feel tomorrow.

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To read the entire Wray article, click here.  To read more about or purchase Professor Langer’s new book, click here.  The image above, titled “Three Nancy’s,” is from a collection of Ellen Langer’s artwork on Scouting for Art.  To watch a video interview of Ellen Langer about her new book, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Giving Is Receiving,” and “January Fools’ Day.”

4 Responses to “The Situation of Health and Aging”

  1. […] onszelf openen voor mogelijkheden om productievere levens te leiden, zelfs op oudere leeftijd. Lees meer. /* */ /* […]

  2. […] H/T The Situationist. […]

  3. Tamara Piety said

    I find this study fascinating and have bought the book. However, this information also grips me with a certain amount of despair that there is yet another reason to conclude that there is yet another thing for which to blame ourselves and a bad attitude, rather like the discussion about whether cancer and other health problems are “caused” by negativity. Alas, negativiely seems to be just the way some people are “wired” while others can seem to effortlessly remain “in the moment” and upbeat. (Or so it seems from the outside.) I am convinced by what I have read in this area that the mind has a profound and measurable effect on physical well-being. On the other hand,the irresistable question arises, “What are the limits of that effect?” I feel certain that I cannot recline on the couch and eat junk food and remain slim and fit merely by thinking myself to be so (although in the last few years I’m making a good effort!). And if I could create my own reality I would have expire long since of one of the many maladies I imagined I had (and will undoubtedly eventually succumb to). While Langer’s findings are intriguing, I suspect that the most difficult questions lie in trying to separate the threads of caustion. In the meantime I will try not to blame myself if I feel old!

  4. […] & Age The Situation of Health and Aging The Situationist […]

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