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Healthy Aging: You Are as Old as You Want to Be

11/06/2014 12:49 EST | Updated 01/06/2015 05:59 EST
Lucy Lambriex via Getty Images

How would you feel if you were given the chance to turn back the clock and return to the time and place of your youth? How would it be if you found the world exactly as it was then, and all the people and things you knew and loved just as you remembered them? For a small group of men in their 70s this fantasy became a reality as they participated in an elaborate experiment that placed them literally in a time warp, on par with what otherwise only happens in movies.

The scenario was set up by Harvard psychology professor Dr. Ellen Langer who has a long history of unusual study approaches. For this event, she had eight septuagenarians take up residence at a former monastery, which was transformed into a 1950s establishment, complete with vintage radio and black and white TV.

While the participants were in relatively good shape in terms of physical and mental capacity, some showed early stages of memory loss and other age-related impediments.

Each day of their stay, they socialized with one another, discussing sports and other "current events" they were reminded of, like the first American satellite launch in 1958.

The idea was not to make these men just reminisce about times long gone by but to relive them as authentically as possible, to the point where they became almost their younger selves again, Dr. Langer explained in a recent interview with the New York Times.

As it turned out, at the end of the experiment, the aging men felt invigorated, looked younger, acted younger, sat and walked taller, had better dexterity, and even their eyesight improved. While they were waiting for a bus to transport them back home, some even engaged in a spontaneous touch-football game, they were so jazzed about the experience.

"They put their mind in an earlier time, and their bodies went along for the ride," Dr. Langer said.

She and her research team found similar results in a number of different studies on the subject of age perception. For instance, nursing home residents did better on memory tests when given certain tasks like caring for plants in their rooms, compared to their counterparts who had no such responsibilities. Or seniors who took on the role of airline pilots by taking the controls in a flight simulator, and who showed remarkable improvement of their eyesight over the course of the exercise. These are just two examples of the many imaginative tests those scientists came up with.

While Dr. Langer did much pioneering in her work, she is not the only one who found connections between aging and perception. A new study from Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley concluded that people who saw their natural aging process as a positive development -- i.e. by becoming wiser, happier, less stressed, etc. -- were able to preserve their physical and mental abilities better than others who harbored negative thoughts about old age.

"Negative age stereotypes that older individuals assimilate from their culture predict detrimental outcomes, including worse physical function," wrote Dr. Becca R. Levy, a professor of epidemiology and behavioral psychology at Yale and lead author of the study report.

In other words, the way we think of ourselves as we grow older determines at least to some extent how well or how poorly we fare. If we perceive aging purely as a loss of vigor and vitality, nature will probably help us along on that path. If we see it as a chance to continue with life's journey, albeit perhaps in different ways, we may reap unexpected rewards.

Nobody can claim that even the best prospects don't come with limitations. Of course they do, that's part of being mortal. But given the choice, I know where I'd put my money...

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.

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