For more than a decade, Paddy Jones has been wowing audiences across the world with her salsa dancing. She came to fame on the Spanish talent show Tú Sí Que Vales (You’re Worth It) in 2009 and has since found success in the UK, through Britain’s Got Talent; in Germany, on Das Supertalent; in Argentina, on the dancing show Bailando; and in Italy, where she performed at the Sanremo music festival in 2018 alongside the band Lo Stato Sociale.
Jones also happens to be in her mid-80s, making her the world’s oldest acrobatic salsa dancer, according to Guinness World Records. Growing up in the UK, Jones had been a keen dancer and had performed professionally before she married her husband, David, at 22 and had four children. It was only in retirement that she began dancing again – to widespread acclaim. “I don’t plead my age because I don’t feel 80 or act it,” Jones told an interviewer in 2014.
According to a wealth of research that now spans five decades, we would all do well to embrace the same attitude – since it can act as a potent elixir of life. People who see the ageing process as a potential for personal growth tend to enjoy much better health into their 70s, 80s and 90s than people who associate ageing with helplessness and decline, differences that are reflected in their cells’ biological ageing and their overall life span.
Of all the claims I have investigated for my new book on the mind-body connection, the idea that our thoughts could shape our ageing and longevity was by far the most surprising. The science, however, turns out to be incredibly robust. “There’s just such a solid base of literature now,” says Prof Allyson Brothers at Colorado State University. “There are different labs in different countries using different measurements and different statistical approaches and yet the answer is always the same.”
If I could turn back time
The first hints that our thoughts and expectations could either accelerate or decelerate the ageing process came from a remarkable experiment by the psychologist Ellen Langer at Harvard University.
In 1979, she asked a group of 70- and 80-year-olds to complete various cognitive and physical tests, before taking them to a week-long retreat at a nearby monastery that had been redecorated in the style of the late 1950s. Everything at the location, from the magazines in the living room to the music playing on the radio and the films available to watch, was carefully chosen for historical accuracy.
The researchers asked the participants to live as if it were 1959. They had to write a biography of themselves for that era in the present tense and they were told to act as independently as possible. (They were discouraged from asking for help to carry their belongings to their room, for example.) The researchers also organised twice-daily discussions in which the participants had to talk about the political and sporting events of 1959 as if they were currently in progress – without talking about events since that point. The aim was to evoke their younger selves through all these associations.
To create a comparison, the researchers ran a second retreat a week later with a new set of participants. While factors such as the decor, diet and social contact remained the same, these participants were asked to reminisce about the past, without overtly acting as if they were reliving that period.
Most of the participants showed some improvements from the baseline tests to the after-retreat ones, but it was those in the first group, who had more fully immersed themselves in the world of 1959, who saw the greatest benefits. Sixty-three per cent made a significant gain on the cognitive tests, for example, compared to just 44% in the control condition. Their vision became sharper, their joints more flexible and their hands more dextrous, as some of the inflammation from their arthritis receded.
As enticing as these findings might seem, Langer’s was based on a very small sample size. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence and the idea that our mindset could somehow influence our physical ageing is about as extraordinary as scientific theories come.
Becca Levy, at the Yale School of Public Health, has been leading the way to provide that proof. In one of her earliest – and most eye-catching – papers, she examined data from the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement that examined more than 1,000 participants since 1975.
The participants’ average age at the start of the survey was 63 years old and soon after joining they were asked to give their views on ageing. For example, they were asked to rate their agreement with the statement: “As you get older, you are less useful”. Quite astonishingly, Levy found the average person with a more positive attitude lived on for 22.6 years after the study commenced, while the average person with poorer interpretations of ageing survived for just 15 years. That link remained even after Levy had controlled for their actual health status at the start of the survey, as well as other known risk factors, such as socioeconomic status or feelings of loneliness, which could influence longevity.
The implications of the finding are as remarkable today as they were in 2002, when the study was first published. “If a previously unidentified virus was found to diminish life expectancy by over seven years, considerable effort would probably be devoted to identifying the cause and implementing a remedy,” Levy and her colleagues wrote. “In the present case, one of the likely causes is known: societally sanctioned denigration of the aged.”
Later studies have since reinforced the link between people’s expectations and their physical ageing, while dismissing some of the more obvious – and less interesting – explanations. You might expect that people’s attitudes would reflect their decline rather than contribute to the degeneration, for example. Yet many people will endorse certain ageist beliefs, such as the idea that “old people are helpless”, long before they should have started experiencing age-related disability themselves. And Levy has found that those kinds of views, expressed in people’s mid-30s, can predict their subsequent risk of cardiovascular disease up to 38 years later.
The most recent findings suggest that age beliefs may play a key role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Tracking 4,765 participants over four years, the researchers found that positive expectations of ageing halved the risk of developing the disease, compared to those who saw old age as an inevitable period of decline. Astonishingly, this was even true of people who carried a harmful variant of the APOE gene, which is known to render people more susceptible to the disease. The positive mindset can counteract an inherited misfortune, protecting against the build-up of the toxic plaques and neuronal loss that characterise the disease.
How could this be?
Behaviour is undoubtedly important. If you associate age with frailty and disability, you may be less likely to exercise as you get older and that lack of activity is certainly going to increase your predisposition to many illnesses, including heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
Importantly, however, our age beliefs can also have a direct effect on our physiology. Elderly people who have been primed with negative age stereotypes tend to have higher systolic blood pressure in response to challenges, while those who have seen positive stereotypes demonstrate a more muted reaction. This makes sense: if you believe that you are frail and helpless, small difficulties will start to feel more threatening. Over the long term, this heightened stress response increases levels of the hormone cortisol and bodily inflammation, which could both raise the risk of ill health.
The consequences can even be seen within the nuclei of the individual cells, where our genetic blueprint is stored. Our genes are wrapped tightly in each cell’s chromosomes, which have tiny protective caps, called telomeres, which keep the DNA stable and stop it from becoming frayed and damaged. Telomeres tend to shorten as we age and this reduces their protective abilities and can cause the cell to malfunction. In people with negative age beliefs, that process seems to be accelerated – their cells look biologically older. In those with the positive attitudes, it is much slower – their cells look younger.
For many scientists, the link between age beliefs and long-term health and longevity is practically beyond doubt. “It’s now very well established,” says Dr David Weiss, who studies the psychology of ageing at Martin-Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. And it has critical implications for people of all generations.
Our culture is saturated with messages that reinforce the damaging age beliefs. Just consider greetings cards, which commonly play on of images depicting confused and forgetful older people. “The other day, I went to buy a happy 70th birthday card for a friend and I couldn’t find a single one that wasn’t a joke,” says Martha Boudreau, the chief communications officer of AARP, a special interest group (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons) that focuses on the issues of over-50s.
She would like to see greater awareness – and intolerance – of age stereotypes, in much the same way that people now show greater sensitivity to sexism and racism. “Celebrities, thought leaders and influencers need to step forward,” says Boudreau.
In the meantime, we can try to rethink our perceptions of our own ageing. Various studies show that our mindsets are malleable. By learning to reject fatalistic beliefs and appreciate some of the positive changes that come with age, we may avoid the amplified stress responses that arise from exposure to negative stereotypes and we may be more motivated to exercise our bodies and minds and to embrace new challenges.
We could all, in other words, learn to live like Paddy Jones.
When I interviewed Jones, she was careful to emphasise the potential role of luck in her good health. But she agrees that many people have needlessly pessimistic views of their capabilities, over what could be their golden years, and encourages them to question the supposed limits. “If you feel there’s something you want to do, and it inspires you, try it!” she told me. “And if you find you can’t do it, then look for something else you can achieve.”
Whatever our current age, that’s surely a winning attitude that will set us up for greater health and happiness for decades to come.
• This is an edited extract from The Expectation Effect: How your Mindset Can Transform Your Life by David Robson, published by Canongate on 6 January (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply