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Reverse Aging: Easier Than You Think

A landmark experiment suggests reverse aging needn't be relegated to the realm of science fiction.

Here's an innovative way to lower health care costs: Set everyone's biological clock back 20 years. Senior citizens of 75 will enjoy the strength and stamina they had at 55, meaning they will need far less medical attention. The energetic elderly will remain productive members of their community later into life, which could also ease the strain on Social Security.

Granted, this sounds like an unusually wonky episode of The Twilight Zone. But three decades ago, Harvard University psychologist Ellen Langer conducted a landmark experiment that suggested reverse aging needn't be relegated to the realm of science fiction. Her revealing study, the many follow-ups it spawned and the implications of their findings are the subject of her fascinating new book Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.

It's a brightly written work — Langer has a knack for metaphors — that deftly challenges an array of assumptions we hold about health. She reminds readers that many definitive-sounding diagnoses are in fact best guesses, and that no study, however elegant and persuasive, can truly tell us the best course of treatment for any particular patient. Physicians, she counsels, should be thought of as "consultants." Ultimately, we know our own bodies best.

In a sense, this is a book about the limits of empirical knowledge. But as Langer sees it, the ambiguity that inevitably accompanies medical research can be profoundly liberating. If we can't be sure that a diagnosis — or a widely accepted truism such as "memory loss is inevitable with age" — truly applies in our case, we're less likely to stick ourselves with a self-limiting label. "While many of our experienced disabilities may be a natural part of aging," she writes, "many are instead a function of our mindsets about old age."

The ingenious counterclockwise experiment was conducted in 1979. Langer and her students recruited two small groups of elderly men to spend a week living in a secluded New Hampshire monastery. Those in the control group spent the seven days reminiscing about the past, while those in the experimental group effectively re-entered the past. Their environment was designed to convey the impression they were living in 1959. They watched movies, listened to songs and read magazines from that era and discussed "current events" such as the first U.S. satellite launches.

"Both groups came out of the experience with their hearing and memory improved," Langer reports. (It appears our bodies respond to being intellectually and emotionally engaged.) But members of the experimental group experienced more dramatic benefits. They were more likely to improve their scores on an intelligence test; more likely to show improvement in joint flexibility and dexterity; and more likely to look younger, as judged by a group of outside observers who compared before-and-after photos. Also, their fingers were longer. Since their arthritis declined in severity, they were able to extend their digits past the point they could a week earlier.

A fluke, perhaps? Well, Langer offers plenty of other data suggesting a strong link between self-perception and health. My favorite involves a group of hotel maids who reported their long hours and family responsibilities didn't give them time to exercise. They were then told that their work, with all its bending and scrubbing, in fact involves quite a bit of exercise. So informed, they lost an average of 2 pounds over the next four weeks. Langer, who has spent several decades studying the effects of mindfulness, notes the women were paying renewed attention to activities that long ago became routine and mechanical. That, she suggests, is the key: If you're noticing the precise condition of the carpet rather than daydreaming as you vacuum, chances are you'll push the machine a little bit harder.

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