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Question: What do you feel is the biggest misconception about aging?

Jonny Bowden: There is so many misconceptions about aging, it’s hard to pick one. But I’m a big fan of the work of Ellen Langler at Harvard. She’s a psychologist who has done some remarkable studies on how our mind influences how we age. One of which I’ll tell you about very briefly.

She took some very ancient people, who were pretty impaired in terms of their strength, their mobility, and believed about themselves that they pretty much needed assistance to do every thing. She took them on this brilliantly designed study. She actually took them to a cabin and set everything up as if it were 1950. There were no newspapers, nothing that related to the present. The music was the 1950’s, the discussion were things that were going on in the 1950’s, so she actually took them back to a place in which they – to a decade in which they were very much more able.

Within a week, not only did their blood lipids improve, their posture improved, their strength improved, their test of memory improved. They actually had a different self-concept about their chronological age and they behaved differently. And the things you could measure, like blood lipids and strength and mobility had actually improved.

So, our ideas about aging are very, very important and they have profound effects on the cellular energy and the way we – everything about us is influenced by the way we think about what’s going to happen in aging. So, if you think of aging that is something that’s inevitable, and you’re going to slow down and you’re not going to be able to do what you used to do, believe me, that’s going to happen.

Now, does that mean that nothing ever slows down or makes a difference? I don’t run as fast as I used to, but I also play singles tennis every day and do a lot of the things that people my age are not supposed to be able to do, and I think that when you stay active and you stay engaged and you stay involved and you look forward to things, you send a different message to every cell in your body about what’s going on and what you’re capable of doing. So, I would say, number one with a bullet, stop believing everything everyone told you about how you need to age.

In the studies on the blue zones, they found people who were 94 years old who were out at 4:30 in the morning milking cows, and they had all their faculties. So, the Black Swan Theory is if there’s one black swan that means not all swans have to be white. So, I actually really do believe that our attitudes and our belief systems have profound effects on how we age and when we can change that and make it more optimistic and more forward looking, more engaged, we do a tremendous disservice to ourselves and to our communities and we do a lot to combat aging.

Recorded on: January 28, 2010

More from the Big Idea for Thursday, April 29 2010


Aging: All in the Mind

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