Aging: All in the Mind

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

Like many other things in life, the way in which you think about aging has profound effects on how it actually functions. Don't let old age become a self-fulfilling prophesy!

Related Articles

Human skeletal stem cells isolated in breakthrough discovery

It's a development that could one day lead to much better treatments for osteoporosis, joint damage, and bone fractures.

Image: Nissim Benvenisty
Surprising Science
  • Scientists have isolated skeletal stem cells in adult and fetal bones for the first time.
  • These cells could one day help treat damaged bone and cartilage.
  • The team was able to grow skeletal stem cells from cells found within liposuctioned fat.
Keep reading Show less

How exercise helps your gut bacteria

Gut bacteria play an important role in how you feel and think and how well your body fights off disease. New research shows that exercise can give your gut bacteria a boost.

National Institutes of Health
Surprising Science
  • Two studies from the University of Illinois show that gut bacteria can be changed by exercise alone.
  • Our understanding of how gut bacteria impacts our overall health is an emerging field, and this research sheds light on the many different ways exercise affects your body.
  • Exercising to improve your gut bacteria will prevent diseases and encourage brain health.
Keep reading Show less

Giving octopuses ecstasy reveals surprising link to humans

A groundbreaking new study shows that octopuses seemed to exhibit uncharacteristically social behavior when given MDMA, the psychedelic drug commonly known as ecstasy.

Image: damn_unique via Flickr
Surprising Science
  • Octopuses, like humans, have genes that seem to code for serotonin transporters.
  • Scientists gave MDMA to octopuses to see whether those genes translated into a binding site for serotonin, which regulates emotions and behavior in humans
  • Octopuses, which are typically asocial creatures, seem to get friendlier while on MDMA, suggesting humans have more in common with the strange invertebrates than previously thought
Keep reading Show less