Sunday, November 02, 2014

Aging, Contributing, and the Importance of Now

Mark D. Roberts blogs about a study by a Harvard psychologist and a 2012 BBC TV special which, decades later, attempted to replicate. Roberts cites a lengthy and interesting article from The New York Times.

The original study was done by Ellen Langer back in 1981. The gist of it was that Langer welcomed eight men, then in their 70s, to a monastery in New Hampshire. Langer, in a time before the connection between mental and physical health was less well understood, predicted that in five days' immersion into a life in this place, objective empirical measures would show them to be in better physical health. The Times article says:
The subjects were in good health, but aging had left its mark. “This was before 75 was the new 55,” says Langer, who is 67 and the longest-serving professor of psychology at Harvard. Before arriving, the men were assessed on such measures as dexterity, grip strength, flexibility, hearing and vision, memory and cognition — probably the closest things the gerontologists of the time could come to the testable biomarkers of age. Langer predicted the numbers would be quite different after five days, when the subjects emerged from what was to be a fairly intense psychological intervention.
In the New Hampshire house, the men were surrounded by the music, television, magazines, books, and movies that would have been current twenty-five years earlier, in 1959, when they would have been younger and healthier. On arrival, they were told that no one would take their luggage to their rooms. They would have to do so, even, as the article has it, if that meant they took up articles of clothing one piece at a time.
“We have good reason to believe that if you are successful at this,” Langer told the men, “you will feel as you did in 1959.”...
At the end of their stay, the men were tested. On several measures, they outperformed a control group that came earlier to the monastery but didn’t imagine themselves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encouraged to reminisce. They were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told me, had “put their mind in an earlier time,” and their bodies went along for the ride.
The results were, as Langer says, almost too good to be true. She shied away from writing much about it in scholarly journals, fearing her colleagues would automatically dismiss the whole thing as too fanciful.
...she and her students would write up the experiment for a chapter in a book for Oxford University Press called “Higher Stages of Human Development,” they left out a lot of the tantalizing color — like the spontaneous touch-football game that erupted between heretofore creaky seniors as they waited for the bus back to Cambridge...
As I say, in 2012, the BBC produced a short series in which the producers essentially replicated Langer's study with a group of older British celebrities, achieving similar results.

All of this is highly suggestive, of course.

How much of the aging process is about simply disengaging from life, exchanging the joys and challenges of the daily struggle for the alluring and often deadening perks of senior citizen status?

Frankly, as a pastor, I have seen people age well and others do so waving a white flag of surrender and entitlement...and early graves. Those who desire to contribute have seem to be the ones who remain young and vibrant, while their peers seem to age overnight.

So, I think there's a lot to this whole mind-body connection.

But there is something that disturbs me about Langer's approach. She achieved positive results in the health of those who disengaged from the world and immersed themselves in one that no longer existed. Is nostalgia the key to making people experience sustained good health?

I hope not, because nostalgia is bad history, for one thing, and, more importantly, it hardly empowers seniors to make the kinds of contributions that are only possible, I think, for those who live fully in the only moments we can inhabit at any given time, the moments we call now.

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