Chapter 12: The Mind-Body Conundrum
Willing Spirit, Weak Flesh: Must it be so?
“It‘s remarkable, Mr. Volmer. You have the clothes of a man half your age!”
In 2006, David C. Rubin of Duke University in North Carolina and Dorthe Berntsen of University of Aarhus in Denmark published a landmark study called “Subjective age across the Lifespan.” They asked a population of 1,470 adults between the ages of 20 and 97 two questions: How old are you chronologically? How old do you feel? The answers from the segment of the population that fell into the Zoomer category were the most interesting: people over 40, they found, felt an average of 20 per cent younger than their actual age. While the percentage of change stayed constant at 20 per cent, the absolute gap widened dramatically the older the respondents. Forty-year- olds felt as though they were 32 (a gap of eight years); 80-year-olds felt as though they were 64 (a gap of 16 years).
And herein lies the problem. although the chances of a 40-year-old being able to do physically what he or she did at 32 are pretty high, the chances of an 80-year-old being able to recreate their 64-year-old physical life are less so. The older we get, the wider the distance between what we’d like to do and what we can do. Carried to its extreme, this divergence can lead to one of the signature experiences of aging: the moment when a person says, “I’m trapped in my body.” but even those of us who are healthy feel that 20 per cent differential, the dichotomy between a still enterprising mind that considers itself years younger than the body that houses it. Our spirit is willing, but our flesh is weak; and (aside from a few exceptional cases) there’s apparently nothing that we can do about it.
Or is there? There are currently two main strategies being used to try to defeat the chronological age/felt-age gap. The first and most familiar (especially in the Western world) is the physical. If we can re-invigorate our bodies through programs of special exercise, diet, supplements or lifestyle regimens, we should theoretically be able to reduce our physical age till it more closely matches the age we feel. The physical approach is the force behind the boomer normalization of extreme athletic pastimes. When Bill Friedman, a 63-year-old lawyer in Toronto, decided to take up bodybuilding to combat the tendency of people to “sag a little more as they get older,” he was an anomaly. He entered his first competition in 2003 and won his first competition in 2004, having successfully sculpted his “soft middle-aged form into a sinewy sculpture of veined masculinity” — in the words of the Globe and Mail. Today, so many baby boomers are taking up the sport that the Canadian body- building Federation’s Master (50-59) and Grand Master (60 and up) categories are its fastest growing age brackets. In addition to bodybuilding, Zoomers have been taking up competitive triathlon, marathon running, long-distance swimming, boxing and rock-climbing. The results can be prodigious, but the pursuits are generally too extreme for most people. Dominic Binetti, who won the 2007 Ontario Grand Master bodybuilding Championship at the age of 76, dined every two hours on a diet of egg whites, skinless chicken breasts, tuna and cod, and refrained completely from drinking alcohol. If that’s the only recipe for the fountain of youth, some of us might be tempted to throw in the towel and look for the nearest recreational drug.
The second approach to the gap problem is from the “mind” side. The idea is to employ a mental or psychological exercise to affect our bodies in a rejuvenating way. It’s well known that changing our mental states can affect blood pressure, galvanic skin response and respiration. The celebrated yogis of India can reportedly use meditation techniques to hold their breath for up to 20 minutes, stop their heart beats and walk on hot coals without burning their feet. There are indications mainstream yoga, which combines mental-consciousness disciplines with physical exercise, can not only increase strength, flexibility and balance but also enhance immune function, lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the slowing of the heart and the lowering of blood pressure. The most famous advocate of eastern mindfulness techniques is, coincidentally, the person on the cover of the magazine you have in your hand — Deepak Chopra. according to Dr. Chopra, by ridding ourselves of negative emotions and by listening to signals from our bodies, we can grasp the “link between belief and biology,” in the process living to be 120 and lopping 15 to 20 years off our current biological ages.
The mind over matter school, however, tends to be long on poetry and short on scientific evidence. Also, in its more ascetic forms, it can seem as dry as that bodybuilding diet I mentioned above. But there is a third way to close the real-age/felt-age gap. One that is both documented and breathtaking in its simplicity.
In 1979, a Harvard University psychology professor named Ellen J. Langer, along with her graduate students, embarked on an experiment to investigate “what effects turning back the clock psychologically would have on people’s physiological state.” They invited their subjects, a group of men in their late 70s and early 80s, to spend a week in a monastery in New Hampshire that had been retrofitted to replicate the world of 1959, 20 years earlier. Participants were asked not to bring any magazines, newspapers or family photographs that were more recent than 1959. They were also asked to write short autobiographies as if it were 1959, in the present tense. These were distributed, along with photos of themselves in the ’50s, to the rest of the participants. Once at the monastery they watched The Phil Silvers Show and The Honeymooners on a black-and-white TV and discussed the “recent” launch of the first U.S. space satellite, the need for bomb shelters and Marilyn Monroe’s new movie, Some Like It Hot.
The results of the experiment, which came to be known as the “Counter-clockwise” study, are now the stuff of research legend. at the end of the week, the majority of participants had emerged with both their hearing and memory function improved. The strength of their grip had increased, along with joint flexibility, manual dexterity and even finger length (the result of being able to straighten previously arthritic digits). Sixty-three per cent of the group scored higher on intelligence tests than they had before the study started. The group also displayed increases in height, gait and posture. as a postscript, Langer and her colleagues asked impartial observers who knew nothing about the study to compare photos taken of the participants at the beginning of the week and at the end. The observers found that every one of the experimental group looked “noticeably younger”.
What had happened? The mind had indeed affected the bodies of the men in the study to an astonishing degree, Langer concluded, not as a result of anything paranormal or metaphysical but because of the cues we use to mark time. Time, for Langer, was a human construct as, at least partly, was the sum total of the physical symptoms we’d come to identify as aging. Change the cues, and all of a sudden biology isn’t destiny. a prematurely bald man looking in a mirror every day, she surmised, might logically assume he was older than a non-bald man (baldness being a cue for age), which meant he might actually age more quickly. An experiment she subsequently did showed that prematurely bald men had a greater chance of being diagnosed with prostate cancer or suffering from coronary heart disease than the average. It occurred to Langer that clothes were also age-related cues — so wouldn’t a middle-aged person who wore a uniform to work every day age more “slowly” than a peer who wore their own, ever changing with the fashion, clothes to work? Examining morbidity data from over 200 professions, she discovered that uniformed workers had better health, lost fewer days to illness or injury and suffered from fewer chronic conditions than non-uniformed workers in the same salary bracket. (The “uniform effect” increased the higher the income bracket — the more money someone had to buy clothes, the more often they experienced age related cues that told them they were getting older.)
So far no one has commercialized Ellen Langer’s time-travel approach to anti-aging, the way yoga and meditation have been packaged. If they did, it might work something like this: You and your oldest wardrobe check in to the Counter-Clockwise Spa, where, instead of starving yourself or exercising from dawn to dusk, you simply live the way you did in 1990 or 1980 or 1970. You eat the way you did then, watch the same shows you did then, read the same books, engage in the same arguments and also have — as every one of Langer’s original subject group reported — fun.
Until someone does open such a spa though, we’ll have to make do with the valuable jolts of counter-clockwise therapy readily available: adult standard radio stations, like our own AM740, re-broadcasts of classic sit-coms and classic cars. Who would have thought that listening to “oldies but goldies” could be so transformative or that the boomer addiction to nostalgia that so many of the younger generation find insufferable, actually works to — horror of horrors — keep us youthful. More important, the rejuvenation involved has nothing to do with endorsing today’s pervasive youth cult but with using our own histories to let us deal more gracefully and comfortably with the inevitability of aging. It highlights the possibility of a new and more dynamic view of aging.
The implications are revolutionary. Yes, there is a way to turn back the clock with dignity, one that has solid scientific credentials and doesn’t involve being a triathlete on the one hand or an ascetic on the other. We simply have to live like our younger selves, replacing present-day cues that insist we’re aging with 20-year-old cues that tell us otherwise. Even more groundbreaking is the possibility that aging’s “inevitable” deterioration is partly a result of our own expectations — we help create the idea that old age equals feebleness ourselves, and wrap ourselves in its straight-jacket. Maybe it’s time to break free.
Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website. Click here for more information.