Friday, August 3, 2012

Is Ageing all in the Mind?

A friend of mine sent me an article: “Can you trick your ageing body into feeling younger?”
I am not sure what she meant by sending me this. (What would you think if a  woman - significantly younger in years - sent you such an article?) The thing is, when it comes to unpleasant things like ageing, my best line of defence is simply “denial”. But when things are shoved into your face through a slot in your inbox, it makes it harder to ignore.

The article relates to an experiment designed to test the hypothesis first put out by Professor Ellen Langer of Harvard University: “If elderly people dress, live and talk as they did in their heyday, will they feel younger and fitter? “ Yes, the same disturbing image flashed through my mind - that of a group of elderly people dressed up as hippies, or even worse - in 70’s garb and hairdo, speaking in what was once considered “cool”  slang.

But the experiment has at least spared us this disturbing spectacle.  It was designed to make a group of elderly people feel younger by recreating an isolated world resembling what they had left behind 35 years before, and placing them in this world for a week. I am not going to go into the details of this experiment. Let’s just say that there were positive results. You can read the rest by yourselves (and then look for your old beads and dried flowers in the attic).

But let’s continue with a few more words about ageing.

I do believe that ageing is in the mind. (Tell that to my receding hairline.) Okay, let me reword this: the "effect of ageing" is in the mind. Some things - such as receding hairlines -  we have no control over. But do we need artifacts from the past in order to trigger this anti-ageing process? Perhaps it wasn’t the recreated world of younger years at all, but merely the introduction of radical change which made the participants feel younger. We definitely feel older when we become stuck in a rut, and get up in the morning with really no expectation from the day. Change brings about new challenges and opportunities. We must exercise our minds and imaginations in order to cope with these new stimuli, even if these are things that we experienced long ago. One might even hypothesize that if a whole new world were created for us - with nothing there that we recognize, neither from the past nor the present - that the results of our feeling younger might be about the same as those in the experiment - perhaps even better.

Another thing that might be interesting to compare is the ageing process of “expats” to that of people who have grown up and lived in the same culture and spoken the same language all of their lives. Would we find any sort of definitive pattern there? Change is also  involved here - at first radical change which slowly evens out over the years.

But let’s leave our physical surroundings for a moment and concentrate on chemistry. Does the intimate interaction with others lessen the ageing process? Yes, I know what you’re thinking. But this doesn’t necessarily relate to an older man dating a younger woman - although Woody Allen would argue its benefits, first in his movie Manhattan and then in his own personal life. I personally cannot argue the merits of such an arrangement, mainly because of a lack of experience.  I do have a good friend, though, who dated much younger women between marriages. I asked him once what was the cutoff point (as to how young she could be). He said, “Well, if she doesn’t know who the Beatles are, that pretty well says it all.”

But our intimate interaction with others needn’t necessarily be of romantic or sexual nature. I have two very close friends in Canada and when I return to Canada for visits, we always get together. And I must say, that without any conscious effort, we keep each other young. We see each other and ourselves as we always have. This was perhaps best summed up in a dream that G (one of these two friends)  had.
“I had this dream last night. I was standing by P’s car talking to P (he was sitting in the car). I looked into the rear view mirror and P and I looked just as we did at the age of 18. I was so excited that I wanted to run and find you and see how you looked. But at that moment, I woke up.”

I would gladly go into the interpretation of this dream further (when I was 14, I read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and it soon became my hobby to interpret my friends’ dreams, something that I still do now and then), but we will leave it at that for now and move on.

And in moving on, let’s get back to things shoved through the slot of the mailbox. One thing that I don’t like receiving are those so-called cute attempts at humour about ageing (sent to me by people who are at an age when they feel they can personally relate to such things): “You know you are getting old when...” and so on.  I agree that humour: satire and the ability to laugh at yourself, is an essential requirement for a healthy physique. However I see no benefit whatsoever in laughing about getting old. If we have come to some sort of agreement that the effect of ageing is in the mind, then succumbing to jokes about how ageing is diminishing our physical and mental capacity is raising the white flag. Why don’t you just shoot me, instead?

But then maybe I am just becoming a grumpy old man.


  1. totally agree best way to beat it is to make a dramatic change in your life,change your habitat,learn a new language, and be daring

    1. You don't have to beat it. you'd better have young friends or students around. There is one more thing: falling in love is the best way:)

    2. Yes, in falling in love you rediscover parts of yourself that you thought were lost.

  2. I think the BBC program should repeat the experiment/series with the Monty Python cast when they hit their late 80's.

    1. Brilliant idea. I don't know if it will make the Monty Python cast feel younger, but it will definitely make me feel younger watching them.

    2. David I had read that article too with great interest. I have always found it interesting that Mary Baker Eddy offered the immortal words of Shakespeare as an introduction to her book Science and Health:
      "There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so".
      Is there no old or young but thinking makes it so?
      Could it be that simple?
      And eing as that we don't see things the way they are, we see them the way we are..... we will always be young when we look at our childhood friends - that's a gift we can vow to always give each other....

  3. In looking at the world around us, it appears that nothing can be that simple. But maybe it is, and we just don't see it.
    I believe in the power of the mind, and like so many other things, there is much still waiting to be discovered.

  4. A lot of what you wrote is from the male perspective (obviously)and physically it is much harder for us to accept changes. On the other hand women are more likely to pick up with childhood friends and realise that we haven't aged a bit.
    I found this blog thought provoking... do we WANT to feel younger? Shouldn't we savor where we are and have worked so hard to achieve? And yet to re-invent ourselves at 60, that IS worth waiting for.

  5. Dear David and friends

    Your article was really uptight and outasite! Far out and groovy, baby. I have always seen myself as a 19 year old, at least since I turned 30. However, whereas it used to take me 4.5 hours to cycle Kiriat Shmona- Haifa ( and be there on time for the open U hishtalmoot), it now takes me a whole day + 2 days recovery.

    I can't blame it on the roads or the bike which are much more advanced then they were in the '90s.

    Secondly, I can prance about all I want, but Sylvia, Rivka and Galina are dead, and the next time I party with them, I'll be too.

    Finaly, as upset as some women are with the changes to their faces and bodies, with a man you either... how shall I put it... can raise the flag or can't, and no ammount of watching the Holy Grail isn't gonna help.

    /keep up the good work. Barry