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When Age Is A Flexible Number

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Aging, Counterclockwise!

In the late 1970s, Dr. Ellen Langer hypothesized that physical markers of aging could be affected by psychosomatic means.

Note: psychosomatic does not mean “it’s all in your head”.

Psychosomatic means “your body does what your brain tells it to do, for better or for worse”

She set about testing that, in what has been referred to since as…

The Counterclockwise Study

A small (n=16) sample of men in their late 70s and early 80s were recruited in what they were told was a study about reminiscing.

Back in the 1970s, it was still standard practice in the field of psychology to outright lie to participants (who in those days were called “subjects”), so this slight obfuscation was a much smaller ethical aberration than in some famous studies of the same era and earlier (cough cough Zimbardo cough Milgram cough).

Anyway, the participants were treated to a week in a 1950s-themed retreat, specifically 1959, a date twenty years prior to the experiment’s date in 1979. The environment was decorated and furnished authentically to the date, down to the food and the available magazines and TV/radio shows; period-typical clothing was also provided, and so forth.

  • The control group were told to spend the time reminiscing about 1959
  • The experimental group were told to pretend (and maintain the pretense, for the duration) that it really was 1959

The results? On many measures of aging, the experimental group participants became quantifiably younger:

❝The experimental group showed greater improvement in joint flexibility, finger length (their arthritis diminished and they were able to straighten their fingers more), and manual dexterity.

On intelligence tests, 63 percent of the experimental group improved their scores, compared with only 44 percent of the control group. There were also improvements in height, weight, gait, and posture.

Finally, we asked people unaware of the study’s purpose to compare photos taken of the participants at the end of the week with those submitted at the beginning of the study. These objective observers judged that all of the experimental participants looked noticeably younger at the end of the study.❞

~ Dr. Ellen Langer

Remember, this was after one week.

Her famous study was completed in 1979, and/but not published until eleven years later in 1990, with the innocuous title:

Higher stages of human development: Perspectives on adult growth

You can read about it much more accessibly, and in much more detail, in her book:

Counterclockwise: A Proven Way to Think Yourself Younger and Healthier – by Dr. Ellen Langer

We haven’t reviewed that particular book yet, so here’s Linda Graham’s review, that noted:

❝Langer cites other research that has made similar findings.

In one study, for instance, 650 people were surveyed about their attitudes on aging. Twenty years later, those with a positive attitude with regard to aging had lived seven years longer on average than those with a negative attitude to aging.

(By comparison, researchers estimate that we extend our lives by four years if we lower our blood pressure and reduce our cholesterol.)

In another study, participants read a list of negative words about aging; within 15 minutes, they were walking more slowly than they had before.❞

~ Linda Graham

Read the review in full:

Aging in Reverse: A Review of Counterclockwise

The Counterclockwise study has been repeated since, and/but we are still waiting for the latest (exciting, much larger sample, 90 participants this time) study to be published. The research proposal describes the method in great detail, and you can read that with one click over on PubMed:

PubMed | Ageing as a mindset: a study protocol to rejuvenate older adults with a counterclockwise psychological intervention

It was approved, and has now been completed (as of 2020), but the results have not been published yet; you can see the timeline of how that’s progressing over on

Clinical Trials | Ageing as a Mindset: A Counterclockwise Experiment to Rejuvenate Older Adults

Hopefully it’ll take less time than the eleven years it took for the original study, but in the meantime, there seems to be nothing to lose in doing a little “Citizen Science” for ourselves.

Maybe a week in a 20 years-ago themed resort (writer’s note: wow, that would only be 2004; that doesn’t feel right; it should surely be at least the 90s!) isn’t a viable option for you, but we’re willing to bet it’s possible to “microdose” on this method. Given that the original study lasted only a week, even just a themed date-night on a regular recurring basis seems like a great option to explore (if you’re not partnered then well, indulge yourself how best you see fit, in accord with the same premise; a date-night can be with yourself too!).

Just remember the most important take-away though:

Don’t accidentally put yourself in your own control group!

In other words, it’s critically important that for the duration of the exercise, you act and even think as though it is the appropriate date.

If you instead spend your time thinking “wow, I miss the [decade that does it for you]”, you will dodge the benefits, and potentially even make yourself feel (and thus, potentially, if the inverse hypothesis holds true, become) older.

This latter is not just our hypothesis by the way, there is an established potential for nocebo effect.

For example, the following study looked at how instructions given in clinical tests can be worded in a way that make people feel differently about their age, and impact the results of the mental and/or physical tests then administered:

❝Our results seem to suggest how manipulations by instructions appeared to be more largely used and capable of producing more clear performance variations on cognitive, memory, and physical tasks.

Age-related stereotypes showed potentially stronger effects when they are negative, implicit, and temporally closer to the test of performance. ❞

~ Dr. Francesco Pagnini

Read more: Age-based stereotype threat: a scoping review of stereotype priming techniques and their effects on the aging process

(and yes, that’s the same Dr. Francesco Pagnini whose name you saw atop the other study we cited above, with the 90 participants recreating the Counterclockwise study)

Want to know more about [the hard science of] psychosomatic health?

Check out Dr. Langer’s other book, which we reviewed recently:

The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health – by Dr. Ellen Langer


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