The surprising relationship between mindset and getting old.
In 1979, psychologist Ellen Langer and her students carefully refurbished an old monastery in Peterborough, New Hampshire, to resemble a place that would have existed two decades earlier. They invited a group of elderly men in their late 70s and early 80s to spend a week with them and live as they did in 1959, “a time when an IBM computer filled a whole room and panty hose had just been introduced to U.S. women,” Langer wrote. Her idea was to return the men, at least in their minds, to a time when they were younger and healthier—and to see if it had physiological consequences.
Every day Langer and her students met with the men to discuss “current” events. They talked about the first United States satellite launch, Fidel Castro entering Havana after his march across Cuba, and the Baltimore Colts winning the NFL championship game. They discussed “current” books: Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger and Leon Uris’ Exodus. They watched Ed Sullivan and Jack Benny and Jackie Gleason on a black-and-white TV, listened to Nat King Cole on the radio, and saw Marilyn Monroe inSome Like It Hot. Everything was transporting the men back to 1959.
When Langer studied the men after a week of such sensory and mindful immersion in the past, she found that their memory, vision, hearing, and even physical strength had improved. She compared the traits to those of a control group of men, who had also spent a week in a retreat. The control group, however, had been told the experiment was about reminiscing. They were not told to live as if it were 1959. The first group, in a very objective sense, seemed younger. The team took photographs of the men before and after the experiment, and people who knew nothing about the study said the men looked younger in the after-pictures, says Langer, who today is a professor of psychology at Harvard University.
Langer’s experiment was a tantalizing demonstration that our chronological age based on our birthdate is a misleading indicator of aging. Langer, of course, was tackling the role of the mind in how old we feel and act. Since her study, others have taken a more objective look at the aging body. The goal is to determine an individual’s “biological age,” a term that aims to capture the body’s physiological development and decline with time, and predict, with reasonable accuracy, the risks of disease and death. As scientists have worked to pinpoint a person’s biological age, they have learned that organs and tissues often age differently, making it difficult to reduce biological age to a single number. They have also made a discovery that echoes Langer’s work. How old we feel—our subjective age—can influence how we age. Where age is concerned, the pages torn off a calendar do not tell the whole story.
While we intuitively know what it means to grow old, precise definitions of aging haven’t been easy to come by. In 1956, British gerontologist and author Alex Comfort (later famous for writing The Joy of Sex) memorably defined senescence as “a decrease in viability and an increase in vulnerability.” Any given individual, he wrote, would die from “randomly distributed causes.” Evolutionary biologists think of aging as something that reduces our ability to survive and reproduce because of “internal physiological deterioration.” Such deterioration, in turn, can be understood in terms of cellular functions: The older the cells in an organ, the more likely they are to stop dividing and die, or develop mutations that lead to cancer. This leads us to the idea that our bodies may have a true biological age.
How old we feel—our subjective age—can influence how we age. Where age is concerned, the pages torn off a calendar do not tell the whole story.
The road to determining that age, though, has not been a straight one. One approach is to look for so-called biomarkers of aging, something that’s changing in the body and can be used as a predictor of the likelihood of being struck by age-related diseases or of how much longer one has left to live. An obvious set of biomarkers could be attributes like blood pressure or body weight. Both tend to go up as the body ages. But they are unreliable. Blood pressure can be affected by medication and body weight depends on lifestyle and diet, and there are people who certainly don’t gain weight as they age.
In the 1990s, one promising biomarker stood out: stretches of DNA called telomeres. They appear at the ends of chromosomes, serving as caps that protect the chromosomes from fraying. Telomeres have often been likened to the plastic tips that similarly protect shoelaces. It turns out that telomeres themselves get shorter and shorter each time a cell divides. And when the telomere shortens beyond a point, the cell dies. There’s a strong relationship between telomere length and health and diseases, such as cancer and atherosclerosis…