Ellen Langer

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  • Mindful Health
  • May 22, 04:42 PM

Newsweek on Counterclockwise

Wray Herbert of Newsweek Online just wrote about my new book, Counterclockwise.

Imagine that you could rewind the clock 20 years. It’s 1989. Madonna is topping the pop charts, and TV sets are tuned to “Cheers” and “Murphy Brown.” Widespread Internet use is just a pipe dream, and Sugar Ray Leonard and Joe Montana are on recent covers of Sports Illustrated.

But most important, you’re 20 years younger. How do you feel? Well, if you’re at all like the subjects in a provocative experiment by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, you actually feel as if your body clock has been turned back two decades. Langer did a study like this with a group of elderly men some years ago, retrofitting an isolated old New England hotel so that every visible sign said it was 20 years earlier. The men—in their late 70s and early 80s—were told not to reminisce about the past, but to actually act as if they had traveled back in time. The idea was to see if changing the men’s mindset about their own age might lead to actual changes in health and fitness.

Langer’s findings were stunning: After just one week, the men in the experimental group (compared with controls of the same age) had more joint flexibility, increased dexterity and less arthritis in their hands. Their mental acuity had risen measurably, and they had improved gait and posture. Outsiders who were shown the men’s photographs judged them to be significantly younger than the controls. In other words, the aging process had in some measure been reversed.

You can read the rest of the article here .

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  • Counterclockwise
  • May 19, 06:00 PM

Embracing the Unpredictable

Now that we are experiencing a recession that most of us never saw coming, we can at least take away a better idea of how unpredictable life is. It’s hard to know what the market is doing, even when the economy is doing well. There are those betting for and those betting against any particular stock. Keep in mind, we can’t buy a stock unless someone is selling it.

It’s not just the stock market that is unpredictable. We need to recognize and accept that uncertainty is the rule in life, not the exception. When we’re given information about our health we may have a tendency to accept it and think we can predict if and how our health will progress as a result. No medical fact, however, is necessarily true for all of us or any one of us in particular. If one medicine, for example, works for most people, it does not mean it will work for me. If we recognize and accept the inherent unpredictability in any situation, we can put ourselves in a better position to find ways to effect the outcome.

Any medical test that says that my condition is untreatable, that I may experience worsening symptoms, or that I will die soon, should not be accepted as simply true. If we look to the unpredictable, in this case, we might find a very good outcome.

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  • Mindful Health
  • May 19, 02:00 PM

Tests and Smoke Detectors

Most of us believe that medical tests are valuable and important. There’s a downside to this, however, that too often goes unnoticed. If we get bad “numbers”—for example, our cholesterol levels or blood pressure is too high—we can become stressed, which is not good for our health. But that’s not the worst of it. The major problem, as I see it, is on the other end—when we get positive health reports. Mistakenly, we may think there is no reason to be concerned about out health and we become oblivious to subtle cues that would otherwise reveal that it needs our attention.

In Counterclockwise, I compared this response to becoming oblivious to the first signs of smoke in our house because we feel safe now that we have smoke detectors. Medical tests and smoke detectors don’t detect everything for everybody. We ourselves need to be the guardians of our own health.

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  • May 18, 06:00 PM

A Flu Thought

I hate to be cynical, but one has to wonder who started the swine flu scare and why. Someone will make a lot of money on the vaccines being developed, someone will prosper by redirecting travel from Mexico to the US, and someone didn’t closely examine the death-rates that typically occur with the flu. Maybe the culprit is among them, maybe not.

On television we can see the scary sight of people with face masks at airports. By making our reactions to this flu so vivid, it seems far more ominous than it really is. The power of making the future a vivid possibility can lead us to over-predicting its likelihood of happening.

The good news is that it can also work to our benefit. Take living to be 100 years old. I think the single person most responsible for our belief in longevity is Willard Scott. For those too young to remember, he was the weatherman on The Today Show who wished an on-air happy birthday—photos and all—to everyone who reached the age of 100. As I discuss in Counterclockwise, making the prospect of living to be 100 seem real creates a positive expectation that people regularly live to be 100. And that goes a long way to increasing our own lifespans.

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  • May 18, 02:00 PM

Baby sitters and Autism

I just heard a public service announcement on the radio that is mind-boggling. It went something like this: a wife and husband are in conversation about leaving the phone number for the police with the baby-sitter. A voice over says: “The likelihood of a babysitter needing to call 911 is 1 in 1500. The likelihood of a child having autism is 1 in 150.”

Now, how could anyone possibly calculate the odd of a baby sitter calling the police? What counts as baby-sitting? Who counts as baby-sitters? Siblings, hired help, next-door neighbors? How long a threshold is there to be considered a sitter? One hour, three hours, six hours? The answers to each of these questions would yield a different probability of the police being called.

We’re too often lulled into accepting statistics that claim to tell us important information. Whatever the merits of calling our attention to autism are, they don’t make up for leading us to be mindless about how we come to that opinion.