We’ve often heard widely accepted truisms about aging like “memory loss is inevitable with age.” These statements are culturally accepted as fact, and frame our view of aging as a society. If mom gets a little more forgetful and a little less engaged, it’s just a natural part of aging.
But what if ideologies like these are not entirely true?
Consider Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer’s famous experiment involving nursing home residents. Langer encouraged one group of participants to find ways to make more decisions for themselves. For example, they were allowed to choose where to receive visitors, and if and when to watch the movies that were shown at the home. Each also chose a houseplant to care for, and they were to decide where to place the plant in their room, as well as when and how much to water it. The intent was to make the nursing home residents more mindful, to help them engage with the world and live their lives more fully.
A second, control group received no such instructions to make their own decisions; they were given houseplants but told that the nursing staff would care for them. A year and a half later, members of the first group were more cheerful, active, and alert, based on a variety of tests administered both before and after the experiment. The independent, decision-making group was also healthier than members of the control group, and less than half as many group members had died during the year.
It seems odd that simply asking people to make choices would result in the powerful outcomes observed in the study, but the act of making these choices results in mindfulness; the central theme of Langer’s work and an increasingly popular subject in the sciences of happiness and wellness.
“If we put the mind and the body back together so that we are just one person again, then wherever we put the mind, we would also put the body. If the mind is in a truly healthy place, the body would be as well—and so we could change our physical health by changing our minds.” – Ellen Langer, author of Counterclockwise
Over nearly four decades, Langer’s research on mindfulness has greatly influenced thinking across a range of fields, from behavioral economics to positive psychology. According to Langer, while it is true that many disabilities are a natural part of aging, many more are instead a function of our mindsets about old age.
As the caregivers and family members of aging loved ones, Langer’s work offers a critical finding: the elderly often improve (not just maintain) their health, memory and wellbeing by having reasons to engage the mind in life. The fountain of youth may in fact be the flood of chemicals in our brain that processes both internal and external messages about old age and dutifully passes them on to our joints, blood vessels and vital organs. We know that physical activity helps our bodies, but science is only now coming to understand how mental exercise can impact our physical selves, and how our mindful (or mindless) beliefs can manifest change.