Aging is all in your mind

An article in PsychCentral on Aging, Illness and Self-Esteem by Tamara Mcclintock Greenberg suggests that we will best maintain our self-esteem as we age if we accept limitations and not pretend that they do not exist.

As she explains:

Aging and illness requires us to manage a number of hits to self-esteem. As we get older most of us have to deal with the narcissistic injury of having bodies that don’t work as well as we would like.

Our relationships with our bodies are inherently narcissistic. We expect to control our bodies and expect them to work when we want them to.

However as we age, our relationship with our bodies changes. In extreme examples, illness can require extreme dependency, such as when people need help using the bathroom or getting dressed in the morning. Many older adults who do not experience this level of dependency often complain about needing reading glasses or needing to write things down so they remember them. Such minor adjustments can be hard for people who believe they and their bodies do not need assistance.

Her advice is to accept reality rather than acting as if nothing had changed.

In some ways that runs counter to some tests reported by the BBC in an article entitled, Can you trick your ageing body into feeling younger?

The project was designed as a follow-up to an experiment first done by Professor Ellen Langer of Harvard University.

In 1979, Ellen was investigating the extent to which ageing is a product of our state of mind. To find out, she and her students devised a study they called the “counter-clockwise study”.

It involved taking a group of elderly men and putting them into the world of 1959. The question she wanted to answer was, if we took their minds back 20 years, would their bodies reflect this change?

Michael Mosley recruited six celebrities aged between 76 and 88 to live in his science lab – a country house decked out like a 1970s time capsule.

They agreed to live in the time capsule house for a week, during which they dressed in 1970s clothes, slept in replicas of their very own 70s bedrooms, watched television from that era, and talked about 1975 in the present tense.

From the beginning it was made clear to the volunteers that they would be expected to look after themselves. Research in nursing homes shows clearly that giving residents control over their own lives and their own choices has a hugely beneficial impact on health and happiness.

At the end of the week the researchers put the guinea pigs through the same rigorous battery of physical and psychological tests that were done at the beginning. Memory, mood, flexibility, stamina and even eye sight had improved in almost all of them.

The results were not uniform, but in some cases they shed up to 20 years in their apparent biological age.

It made a compelling case for Ellen Langer’s argument that opening our minds to what’s possible can lead to better health, whatever our age.

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