Are We as Young as We Feel or as Old as We Think?

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If there’s one thing all the recent research on aging and the influence of psychological factors tells us, it’s that how we surround ourselves and how we think and feel about our lives really matters.

A New York Times article recently mentioned a fairly dated but nonetheless revolutionary study conducted by Ellen Langer and her colleagues at Harvard University on the effects of a person’s environment and their mental set on their youthfulness, vitality, and even their physical performance. The study suggested that many of the things we consider as inevitable consequences of aging (e.g., diminished energy, physical strength and endurance, memory and other cognitive abilities, etc.) might be significantly influenced by our perceptions and mind-set. While Langer never replicated her study, the results she obtained are congruent with other recent research on the factors associated with age and vitality. Taken together, the studies suggest that while there’s always been some truth to the saying: “you’re only as old as you feel,” there may also be some truth to the notion that you’re as young as you think you are.

I first learned about Langer’s study in graduate school and always found it intriguing. The experiment was fairly unique for its time. Men in their 70’s but in generally good health were divided into two groups: those who remained in their usual environments and engaged in their customary routines and those who entered a carefully constructed time-warp of sorts. The latter group was placed in an environment in which they weren’t just supposed to reminisce about the “good ol’ days” but rather to actually live as though they were in fact in those days, dressing as they did then, watching movies and television programs from that era, swapping stories about sports events and figures from earlier times, surrounding themselves with memorabilia and photos of bygone years, and imagining and behaving as if they were actually living the lives of former times. Remarkably, members of the “time-warp” group outperformed their real world counterparts when tested on measures of physical strength, dexterity, cognitive ability and even memory. The study, it appeared, demonstrated that how young we feel and act has a lot to do with our frame of mind.

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Reading the article about Langer’s study brought to mind and underscored for me lessons I’ve learned from various experiences of the past several years, all of which have attested to how important our environments and mental outlook are to our overall health. For some time now I’ve been a member of a group that travels regularly to a nursing home in my area to bring the gifts of song and sharing to a group of individuals whose usual routines are — shall we say — not very stimulating, if not outright boring. Given the level of infirmity of many of the residents, it’s natural for folks to assume that life is necessarily so dull. But for a few hours, when they’re taken back in time by the songs many grew up with, these otherwise seemingly zoned-out folks seem to come to life. No, they don’t overcome all their handicaps. But the difference in their levels of energy and alertness is notable.

I remember similar experiences with my mother, whom I lost to Alzheimer’s Disease a few years ago. Her cognitive decline seemed to advance mercilessly and over a relatively short period of time. But there were some bright spots along the way, most notably when she was surrounded by family and longtime friends and acquaintances, heard or told old stories, watched old, familiar TV programs, and most especially, when we’d sing her old favorite songs. For a long time she would join in, and those are the times I remember her being most alive. There were even times when we’d wonder for a minute if she weren’t somehow miraculously back to normal or if there wasn’t some hope the course of her disease could possibly be reversed. Sadly, it was not to be the case. But nevertheless, it was clear to us all that mom felt and did her best when she managed to mentally re-enter an earlier time.

There’s still a lot of research to do on the mind-body connection, but if there’s one thing all the recent research on aging and the influence of psychological factors tells us, it’s that how we surround ourselves and how we think and feel about our lives really matters. If we’re active and engaged, if we place ourselves in “youthful” and energetic surroundings, and immerse ourselves in those surroundings, we tend to feel better, look and feel younger, and age more gracefully. I know this firsthand. I’m 66 years of age (by some accounts, the “new 46”) and I’m doing so many things now that I somehow let myself stop doing in my 50’s, it’s hard to count them all. As a consequence, my 50’s were not pretty. But as a result of many lifestyle changes, I’m in a lot better shape physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally than I was even in my 40’s. It takes a lot of work at first to break old habits and to be more mindful of how you work, eat, play, and live. But once you put yourself into a younger frame of mind, it all becomes a little easier. And it isn’t long before the benefits become clearer: a stronger body, a sharper mind, and a heck of a lot more energy. So I know there’s truth to the notion that when you feel young in many ways you are younger. But to get there, it really helps to think young.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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