Ageing gracefully


In 1981, Ellen Langer and her Harvard colleagues took two groups of men in their seventies and eighties to an old monastery which was set up to appear as in 1959 with 1950s issues of Life magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, a black-and-white television and a vintage radio.

The first group were asked to pretend they were young men, once again living in the 1950s. The second group, who arrived the next week, were told to stay in the present and simply reminisce about that era.

In studies with colleagues at Yale, Langer had already shown that memory loss—a problem often blamed on aging—could be reversed by giving elderly people more reasons to remember facts; when success was rewarded with small gifts, or when researchers made efforts to create personal relationships with their subjects, elderly memory performance improved.

In another study, she and Yale colleague Judith Rodin found that simply giving nursing-home residents plants to take care of, as well as control over certain decisions—where they would meet guests, what activities to do—not only improved their subjects’ psychological and physical health, but also their longevity: a year and a half later, fewer of those residents had died.

Before and after the experiment, both groups of men took a battery of cognitive and physical tests, and after just one week, there were dramatic positive changes across the board. Both groups were stronger and more flexible. Height, weight, gait, posture, hearing, vision—even their performance on intelligence tests had improved. Their joints were more flexible, their shoulders wider, their fingers not only more agile, but longer and less gnarled by arthritis.

But the men who had acted as if they were actually back in 1959 showed significantly more improvement. Those who had impersonated younger men seemed to have bodies that actually were younger.

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Another amazing story of old age is that of Dr Charles Eugster, a 93 year old bodybuilder.