How to slow ageing

happy elderly ladies playing with a ball

image: iStock photo

My friend Skip told me recently that he met a 98-year-old man in Bali who challenged him to a race to climb a tree. Skip is a very physically healthy and fit person – an ex-British champion gymnast – yet the 98-year-old nearly matched him.

I spent 6 months of last year nearly full-time renovating our new home. I clearly remember my first building job. My Dad and I had to remove the floorboards in one room, then get rid of all the large rocks underneath (typical in a very old cottage), so that a new floor could be laid.

Lifting the floorboards and removing the joists wasn’t so hard. We did that in less than an hour. It was lifting the heavy rocks for disposal that was the hard bit. When I woke up the following morning, I could barely get out of bed. Muscles I didn’t even know existed were hurting. Walking to the shower, and then downstairs for breakfast, was painful.

I phoned my Dad to see how he was, worried. He is 73-years-old, after all.

“Fine, Son!” was his reply when I phoned him, in an astonishingly (to me) upbeat voice.

He didn’t hurt at all. How could that be? I’m in my mid-forties and no stranger to exercise. I regularly work out. Dad was completely fine. I felt … wrecked … I think that was the word I used that morning.

These kinds of examples of older people demonstrating physical fitness that we only expect in people much younger remind me of how much attitude plays a role in ageing.

For a start, there is no standard rate of ageing. Yes, we have biology. Yes, we have genetics that predispose the human body to an approximate lifespan. But how that biology and those genetics work has a lot to do with attitude.

Back in the 80s, Harvard professor, Ellen Langer, ran a study of a group of senior citizens, some of whom were struggling with arthritis, who were asked to pretend they were 20 years younger. They arrived at the residential centre, where they would live for the next week, and immediately felt transported back in time. Langer ensured that the house was decorated like the 1950s, that daily newspapers each day were from 1959, that the radio played ‘live’ from 1959. Even the TV ran 1959 shows.

They were also asked to converse with each other like it was 20 years ago, discussing their family as if they were all younger. In other words, they were to completely immerse themselves in the mindset that they were 20 years younger. Importantly, they were also encouraged to do things for themselves – carry their own bags, walk up the stairs, etc, without Langer’s team treating them like they weren’t capable.

Astonishingly, when their physiological readings before and after beginning the study were taken – physical strength, eyesight, hearing, gait, manual dexterity, taste sensitivity, memory, mental cognition – they had grown younger. Interestingly, four independent volunteers were asked to look at ‘Before’ and ‘After’ photographs and stated that they believed the ‘After’ photos were two years younger.

In her book, ‘Counterclockwise’, Langer wrote that on the last day at the centre, men, “who had seemed so frail… ended up playing an impromptu touch football game on the front lawn.” 1 week!! This was after just 1 week of holding a younger attitude.

We have two ages. There’s our chronological age, which is the number of years we’ve lived, which of course only goes in one direction. Then we have our physiological age, which is the age of the body, and that depends to a large extent on diet, exercise … and attitude. It can go backwards.

The food we eat, the exercise we take, our attitude to life, ageing, other people, all make a difference to our physiological age. A poor diet, lifestyle and attitude generally takes its toll on the body, prematurely ageing it. A healthy set, on the other hand, keeps the body younger.

One study of 999 Dutch people aged between 65 and 85 quizzed them on their attitudes to ageing. They were asked whether they agreed or disagreed to statements of the sort, “I often feel that life is full of promises,” “I still have positive expectations about my future,” “There are many moments of happiness in my life.” Those whose responses showed them to have higher levels of optimism had a 77% lower risk of death from heart disease and 45% lower risk of death from any cause.

A similar study, conducted at Yale University, asked 660 people for their responses to questions like, “As you get older, you are less useful. Agree or Disagree?’ Those whose responses showed the most positive attitude to ageing lived an average of seven and a half years longer than those with the least positive attitude.

The study also concluded that attitude was more influential than blood pressure, cholesterol levels, smoking, body weight and even exercise levels in how long a person lived.

Attitudes to other people and social contact make a big difference too. People with a poor attitude to others typically don’t make friends as well and neither do they have a broad social network. People who tend to be aggressive, hostile, or even bullies towards others are more prone to cardiovascular disease. People who are more understanding of others, are kind and compassionate, on the other hands, tend to make friends more easily and tend to have better quality relationships. They also tend to have more social contact.

And social contact is highly important. It turns out that social contact is one of the most important factors, in fact, in living to 100. Social contact, as well as helping keep stress down by providing friendships where we can discuss our worries and challenges, also helps produce oxytocin, which is a hormone that helps maintain the health of the cardiovascular system.

The bottom line in research of all of the above types is that attitude affects ageing and it does it by affecting, not just our minds, but our biology and physiology.

One of the key attitudes to adopt is to actually act younger. It’s easy to surrender to what we think we should be doing, or be able to do, given our age. But outside of a bit of common sense regarding our physical state, most people are capable of more than they believe they should be.

A person who is 80 and who believes that the body is mostly worn out at 80, that no improvement is possible in their physical condition regardless of what they do, that their memory, eyesight, physical strength, etc, are set for decline, will live according to this belief, and it will influence what they actually do, how much they move, how they speak, and how their body responds to life.

Let’s say another person has grown up with the belief that humans live until they are 150 years old and that 80 is ‘middle age’. Such a person would likely find that their attitude and the lifestyle, exercise and movement they adopt, would lead to improvements in their physical condition.

Attitude counts! The same holds true when we’re 30, 40, 50, 60, 70… I think you get my drift. If we have a negative preconceived idea of limitations of age, then we tend to live according to these limitations, whatever age we currently are, and don’t stretch our minds and bodies in the way that they are able to be stretched. As such, we age according to our mindset.

Enough said! I’m off to play on the swings. 🙂

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  1. Janel S. on April 28, 2016 at 11:02 am

    Awesome! I believe this is 100% true too! I feel on the inside younger than I have in years. At 50, I feel maybe 30! People can’t believe I’m 50 so I don’t admit it too often. But I am at weight I used to be when I married 10 years ago. I have a work out and feel stronger than ever. I only eat clean, whole foods, very little sugar, I will be finishing up a health certification this year and start my own health coaching business soon. I also say affirmations that I am getting younger every day. I believe gratitude and a very strong faith help me love life every day! Thank you for all the wonderful information you bring to the world Dr. Hamilton!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on April 29, 2016 at 10:19 am

      Thanks for your kind words, Janel. Great to hear you’re keeping so fit and healthy. 🙂

  2. Maria on April 28, 2016 at 11:11 am

    Oh David! You are hilarious. I’m off to ride on my unicorn – I’ll see you in the playground later! I’ll take a look at your lectures. Haven’t seen you in over a year and your attitude is infectious!.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on April 29, 2016 at 10:18 am

      Thanks Maria. Happy unicorn riding. 🙂

  3. VANESSA NNACHI-UCHE on April 28, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    This is absolutely inspiring! I just turned 45, I feel incredibly young and atimes feel ridiculous that my attitude and the number of my years do not match. I’ll no longer beat myself up.. I’m very excited about the future as I’m currently retraining at university to change career after almost 20 years in the Oil and Gas industry. I’m in class with kids the same age as my professional experience.
    Thank you David. You’re a blessing!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on April 29, 2016 at 10:18 am

      Thanks for your kind words, Vanessa. Great to hear you’re in a class full of younger people – it’ll help keep you young too. 🙂

  4. Ursi on April 28, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    How very appropriate! Love your writings.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on April 29, 2016 at 10:17 am

      Thanks Ursi. 🙂

  5. Therese on April 28, 2016 at 1:27 pm

    Thanks, David! Wonderful article, and very inspiring to me. I appreciated the links included. I checked out the book “Counterclockwise” by Ellen Langer, and it looks like a great read…one I am now adding to my list. Wishing you a very happy and playful day! I’m off to do the same. 🙂

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on April 29, 2016 at 10:17 am

      Hope you enjoy the book, Therese. Wishing you a happy and playful day too. 🙂

  6. Angie Sanders on April 28, 2016 at 3:15 pm

    60 is the new 30!

    I have been thinking of trying out rock climbing (of the indoor variety) now I have reached “31”, perhaps I will try a tree instead!!

    Thank you David, as Vanessa comments, you are inspiring. I too must try and get to see you again as it has been ages

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on April 29, 2016 at 10:16 am

      It certainly is, Angie! Happy climbing! 🙂

  7. Mary Brimelow on April 28, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    Hi David. When you are going to publish your book about this!!? I am still belly dancing at 78 and enjoy an active social life, and have many interests. . Let’s keep dancing!!

  8. Mary Brimelow on April 28, 2016 at 8:12 pm

    Hi David. When are you going to publish your book about this?!!! I have been waiting several years. I am still belly dancing at 78 and enjoy an active social life, with many interests. Just keep dancing!!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on April 29, 2016 at 10:16 am

      I have thought about that, Mary. Maybe I will sometime. 🙂

  9. Margaret McPherson on April 28, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    I’m 76, completely independent, still driving, do lots of gardening, (weather permitting), and until recently walked my beautiful collie/lab daily. Sadly I lost her to old age last year, but you know what – she never stopped playing, and neither do I.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on April 29, 2016 at 10:15 am

      Sorry to hear you lost your dog last year, Margaret. But happy to hear she never stopped playing… and glad to hear you’re still playing too. 🙂

  10. Lucy Lopez on April 30, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    KNOW this to be true! Ageing happens because we resist our natural (childlike) playfulness, curiosity, openness and flexibility and instead become rigid in our thinking/beliefs. Resistance is always hard work and takes its toll on our body.

  11. Sasha Allenby on April 30, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    YES YES YES – I totally believe this. For years I have been telling myself I am 20 years younger than I am. When I go to the gym I pick a locker with a number such as 20 and I repeat in my mind over and over again, “I’m 20 today.” I’ve been doing this for years and I really don’t look or feel my age at all!!

    Recently I read The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor and it talked about that amazing study that you mentioned where a group of people were transported to a village that took them back in time. All the newspapers were from decades earlier and they were encouraged to talk as though it was decades ago. At the end of the study they all had much less physical symptoms of aging. It was a great confirmation of what I’ve always known in my heart to be true.

    Thanks for sharing this David.

  12. Lynn Beveridge on May 1, 2016 at 6:06 pm

    Love your work & spout on about it to whoever will listen! My Dad is 86 years young, and has an amazing attitude to life, took up swimming last year & exercises on his rowing machine every day! My aim is to follow in his footsteps he is living proof of the anti ageing attitude you speak of

  13. chris on May 2, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    love this. at 61 now i sometimes find myself starting to shrink my expectations. and allow some aches and pains to limit my thinking. my dogs help keep me young, my horses keep me fit, i have recently enrolled on 4 new learning /educational courses – emotional healing for dogs/ playtherapy for people/ horse attunement/ and live more with less e-course. determined to keep the brain active 😉 thanks for the reminder david!

  14. Hali Chambers on May 3, 2016 at 12:47 pm

    A couple years ago, I saw Peter Gray speak. He wrote Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. It’s a fantastic book about the importance of play backed up with lots of research. Another great book by Dr. Stuart Brown is Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. He illustrates the importance of play, not just for children, but adults and maintains that just like we can have sleep deficits, we can have play deficits. I recommend these two books as research for your book on play. 😉

    I think part of a positive attitude about aging is to maintain a sense of curiosity and wonder about the world. As long as you’re curious, there’s always something new and fun to learn. 🙂 H.

  15. Ed Franco on May 24, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    It’s always a joy to read your blog posts, David. What a wonderful “teaching by example” lesson your father offered you. You were right to be concerned about his wellbeing – any good son would be. Though your sense of his vulnerability seemed to stem largely from his chronological age. As you wrote, “He is 73 years old, after all.” Just as parents sometimes overly protect their children in an effort to shield them from an often scary world, persons with parents they perceive as elderly sometimes guard them a bit too closely. Although in the latter case, often the underlying motivation (whether conscious or unconscious) is that the thing the parent needs protection from is his or her very self.

    We, as a culture (certainly here in the US), have all kinds of preconceived and erroneous notions about what it means to be an older adult. Thank you for reminding us of our two ages: chronological and physiological. In his book Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, Deepak Chopra says we have three ages – the two you referenced plus our “psychological age.” It’s this third age that, according to Chopra, is the most influential in determining how aging plays out in our lives. The closing paragraphs of your post, in which you discuss the impact attitude has on aging, clearly support his theory.

    Our perception of time – as well as the passage of it – in our day-to-day lives is of equal importance. And “perception” is the operative word here. Do we see each day as moving us toward a greater expression of life and our true self? Or do we see each new dawn as another step closer to the grave? If we tightly clutch the belief that degenerative aging is inevitable, it will surely manifest in physical form in one way or another.

    Of course, there are two spheres in which this dialogue around age and aging occurs in anyone’s life: internally (self-talk) and externally (via social, cultural and media forums). The Dutch study you cited illuminates the key role that optimism about the future plays in our experience of aging. In the absence of hope for the day – and days – ahead, why get up in the morning? Sadly, the healthcare industry is not immune to dire and limiting beliefs about older adults. A chill still comes over me when I recall a woman I knew who, at 91, summoned the courage to tell her internist she was fighting depression. His response? “Of course you’re depressed, you’re ninety-one.”

    Thankfully, because of enlightened souls such as yourself and your Hay House colleagues, these kinds of interactions are beginning to change.

    With gratitude and respect,
    Ed Franco

  16. Simrat on January 25, 2017 at 7:52 pm

    Your lecture about Healing body with strength of one’s mind was very inspiring! Thanks 🙂

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on February 1, 2017 at 11:35 am

      Thanks, Simrat. 🙂

  17. KAREN on July 15, 2018 at 7:59 pm

    Thank You , I am so happy that the word is getting out to people . We really can do anything we think we can. We all know the story of the little train ? I THINK I CAN I THINK I CAN ….and if we think we can, we can …and that is in ALL AREAS of life and ourselves. Thank you so much …..I needed this reminder . I needed this pep talk !!!

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