Young in mind: Saying no to caricatures of aging

I recently became a grandfather. This was a joyous event in our family, and my first emotion was indeed joy — for the new parents, for the healthy baby boy. But I confess that my second reaction — and not far behind — was much more conflicted: I’m too young to be a grandfather, I found myself thinking. Don’t grandparents sit on park benches and drive slowly?

Within weeks I found myself upping my cardio routine and modifying my diet a bit, with the idea of shedding a couple of pounds. I should do more sit-ups, too. Who knows, maybe I’ll even train for a triathlon.

There are two schools of thought regarding aging. One says that we should age gracefully, accept the normal wear-and-tear of the years as the natural order of things. Don’t embarrass yourself with body piercings and skinny jeans that bulge in the wrong places. The other school says, hell no: If you act old, you’ll feel old. Don’t accept the stereotypes of the elderly as debilitated, out to pasture. Ditch the cardigans and easy-fit jeans.

So what’s a new grandfather to do? New research from the Harvard lab of Ellen Langer suggests that there may be some truth to the second view. According to Langer, our society is chock-full of subtle cues about aging as a diminished, unhealthy stage of life — and these unconscious cues may be shaping both our views of ourselves and the way we act — and indeed shaping our bodies themselves — all in undesirable ways.

Consider the evidence from several studies, all designed to either mute or magnify common signs of aging. For example, in one study Langer and her colleagues visited a local hair salon to study women who were having their hair styled. They photographed a group of customers who ranged in age from 27 to 83; they also measured their blood pressure and asked them how old they thought they looked, and they repeated this procedure after their hair appointments.

Some of the women had their hair colored, while others had their hair cut. The scientists cropped both the before and after photographs so that they did not reveal the hair, and asked independent raters to identify the photos in which each of the women looked younger. The results were intriguing: Whether they had their hair dyed or cut, if the women felt younger, they also appeared younger to the independent observers. And more important, women who perceived themselves as younger showed a decrease in blood pressure following their appointments. In other words, a change in self-perception of age was linked to healthy changes in physiology and demeanor.

Since this was just one small field study, Langer and colleagues decided to verify the findings by analyzing various kinds of archival data. In one study, for instance, they wanted to explore clothing as a possibly unhealthy cue for getting and acting old. Specifically, they compared people who wore uniforms for their job — hospital scrubs, for example — to others who did not — say engineers. They controlled for education level, income, physical activity on the job, and happiness, then took various measures of poor health — work loss due to injury or illness, doctor visits, hospital stays, chronic health problems, and so forth. The idea was that people who wear uniforms have one less cue that they’re getting older — dressing appropriately for one’s age — and that this difference will actually affect the aging process. And that’s just what they found: Those who wore uniforms for a living had lower morbidity overall than did those who earned the same money but didn’t wear a work uniform.

The scientists did a similar study of male baldness. Many men lose hair as they age, so that balding — like gray hair and wrinkles — is a common and potent trigger for an aging mindset. They analyzed several existing collections of data on premature balding and later health outcomes, and found that hair loss is linked with both prostate cancer and coronary heart disease. Langer believes that as we age, we have certain visceral responses to seeing ourselves getting older — and that these visceral responses accumulate over time, eventually turning into something bigger and more visible — perhaps even a deadly disease. In other words, we internalize negative views of aging — they become part of our identity — with unhappy consequences down the line.

Langer describes these studies and others in the new issue of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. She also examined data on women who have children later in life, reasoning that these women are likely to be surrounded by youthful cues. And indeed it turns out that these older mothers live longer on average than women who bear children earlier in life. Finally, the scientists looked at women who marry either significantly older or significantly younger men, and found that younger wives live shorter lives — presumably because they “live older lives.” Of course the flip side is that older spouses live younger lives — and longer ones.

We all live by “social clocks” — we gauge our lives by all sorts of beliefs that there is a “right age” for this of that attitude, this or that behavior. We often adjust our own clock — social and biological — to sync with those around us, becoming older in the process. But mindsets are not fate. Langer’s mind-body hypothesis predicts that just as social cues can make us feel old, other social cues can make us feel and act young. These could include everything from Botox to aerobics class to being around children, including grandchildren.

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