Can the power of thought stop you ageing?



A cure to ageing is a holy grail of medicine from


By Abigail Williams

In 1979 psychologist Ellen Langer carried out an experiment to find if changing thought patterns could slow ageing. But the full story of the extraordinary experiment has been hidden until now.

How much control do you have over how you will age?

Many people would laugh at the idea that people could influence the state of their health in old age by positive thinking. A way of mitigating ageing is a holy grail for the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industry, but an experiment by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer three decades ago could hold significant clues.

Prof Langer has spent her entire career investigating the power our mind has over our health. Conventional medicine is frequently accused of treating them as separate entities.

Horizon: Don’t Grow Old is available via iPlayer and will be repeated at 0250GMT on BBC One on Tuesday 9 February

„Everybody knows in some way that our minds affect our physical being, but I don’t think people are aware of just how profound the effect actually is,” she says.

In 1979, Prof Langer conducted a ground-breaking experiment – the results of which are only now being fully revealed.

Prof Langer recruited a group of elderly men all in their late 70s or 80s for what she described as a „week of reminiscence”. They were not told they were taking part in a study into ageing, an experiment that would transport them 20 years back in time.

The psychologist wanted to know if she could put the mind back 20 years would the body show any changes.

The men were split into two groups. They would both be spending a week at a retreat outside of Boston.

Ellen Langer

Ellen Langer in 1979 and today

But while the first group, the control, really would be reminiscing about life in the 50s, the other half would be in a timewarp. Surrounded by props from the 50s the experimental group would be asked to act as if it was actually 1959.

They watched films, listened to music from the time and had discussions about Castro marching on Havana and the latest Nasa satellite launch – all in the present tense.

Dr Langer believed she could reconnect their minds with their younger and more vigorous selves by placing them in an environment connected with their own past lives.

And she was determined to remove any prompt for them to behave as anything but healthy individuals. The retreat was not equipped with rails or any gadgets that would help older people. Right from the off she was determined to ensure they looked after themselves.


One man discarded his walking stick

When they got off the bus at the retreat, Prof Langer did not help the men carry their suitcases in. „I told them they could move them an inch at a time, they could unpack them right at the bus and take up a shirt at a time.”

The men were entirely immersed in an era when they were 20 years younger.

Understandably, Prof Langer herself had doubts. „You have to understand, when these people came to see if they could be in the study and they were walking down the hall to get to my office, they looked like they were on their last legs, so much so that I said to my students ‘why are we doing this? It’s too risky’.”

But soon the men were making their own meals. They were making their own choices. They weren’t being treated as incompetent or sick.

Pretty soon she could see a difference. Over the days, Prof Langer began to notice that they were walking faster and their confidence had improved. By the final morning one man had even decided he could do without his walking stick.

As they waited for the bus to return them to Boston, Prof Langer asked one of the men if he would like to play a game of catch, within a few minutes it had turned into an impromptu game of „touch” American football.

The experiment took the men back to 1959

Obviously this kind of anecdotal evidence does not count for much in a study.

But Prof Langer took physiological measurements both before and after the week and found the men improved across the board. Their gait, dexterity, arthritis, speed of movement, cognitive abilities and their memory was all measurably improved.

Their blood pressure dropped and, even more surprisingly, their eyesight and hearing got better. Both groups showed improvements, but the experimental group improved the most.

Woman thinking

Think younger, feel younger?

Prof Langer believes that by encouraging the men’s minds to think younger their bodies followed and actually became „younger”.

She first published the scientific data in 1981 but she left out many of the more colourful stories. As a young academic, she feared this might taint the experiment and affect the acceptance of the results.

Now after over 30 years of research into the connection between the mind and the body and with the confidence and conviction of a Harvard professor, she feels she has a fuller story to tell.

„My own view of ageing is that one can, not the rare person but the average person, live a very full life, without infirmity, without loss of memory that is debilitating, without many of the things we fear.”

Richard Wiseman, professor of public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, thinks the results of Prof Langer’s experiments are fascinating but the big question is what’s causing them. „I think there could be multiple things going on here and the question is which explanations really hold water.


Why some people age faster than others is mysterious

„Part of it could be self perception, for example if you get people to smile they feel happier. The same could be going on here, by getting people to act younger they feel younger.”

Prof Weisman believes another factor could be motivational, the men are simply trying harder by the end of the week, or it could be similar to hypnotism, where people do better on memory tests because they are told they have a better memory.

Whatever the cause he believes there is a place for the type of positive thinking shown in the study.

„If you take something like heart disease positive thinking can have a role, because while it won’t heal your heart on its own, positive thinking will feed into positive actions like healthy eating or exercise which will help.”

In any event there is likely to be more interest in the 1979 experiment. The retelling of the study has been snapped up by Jennifer Aniston’s new production company, with Aniston tipped to play Prof Langer.

Nato troops free ship off Somalia after pirate attack


The Absalon with another Danish warship behind it (file image,  Nato)

Denmark has been operating against Somali pirates since 2008

Danish special forces serving as part of Nato’s counter-piracy operation have freed the crew of a cargo ship boarded by pirates off Somalia.

They moved in after being assured by the captain that the crew had locked themselves in a safe room, a Nato spokeswoman told the BBC.

It seems the pirates escaped to their boat before the troops arrived but the 180m (590ft) vessel was being searched.

A second pirate boat in the area was seized by a Russian warship, Nato says.

Admiral Sir Trevor Soar, commander of the Nato Maritime HQ in London, commended the actions of the Danish warship Absalon, which carried out the rescue.

„Absalon’s action today demonstrates Nato’s resolve to deter and disrupt piracy off the Horn of Africa,” he said in a statement.

He also thanked the Russian and Indian navies for assisting in the operation.

Distress signal

A distress signal was received from the master of the Antigua and Barbuda-flagged Ariella on Friday morning, reporting that six heavily armed pirates had boarded the ship, Nato spokeswoman Lt Cdr Jacqui Sherriff told the BBC.

I don’t know if he [one of the pirates] jumped overboard when he saw the helicopter or later when he saw the special forces
Cmdr Dan B Termansen
commander of the Absalon

The attackers’ skiff and a second boat were seen in the area of the attack about 160km (100m) off the Somalia coast.

Informed that the crew had managed to lock themselves away, the Absalon first sent out a helicopter to investigate, then a team of specially trained forces in inflatable dinghies to board the ship and regain control.

The crew, said to be 25 strong, were released safely.

Cmdr Dan B Termansen, commander of the Absalon, said that the crew had reported seeing a pirate firing an automatic weapon aboard their ship.

„I don’t know if he jumped overboard when he saw the helicopter or later when he saw the special forces,” he added.

„We searched the ship for hours and didn’t find anybody.”

However, Cmdr Mikael Bill, head of the Danish Admiralty in western Denmark, said he did not believe there had been any pirates aboard the ship when the special forces arrived.

„It is our clear understanding that there were no hijackers on board but our helicopter had deterred an action,” he said.

A Russian warship, the Neustrashimy, successfully boarded and detained the pirates in the second skiff.


Cdr John Harbour, a spokesman for the EU Naval Force in Nairobi, praised the Nato operation.

It was, he told the Associated Press news agency, the first instance where a warship had been able to „send forces to stop a hijacking while it was in progress”.

Warships typically do not intervene in hijackings because of the danger that crews may be hit by crossfire, he pointed out.

However, in this case the ship had registered with naval authorities, was travelling along a recommended transit corridor and was part of a group transit, ensuring the ships had a helicopter within 30 minutes’ reaction time.

The waters off Somalia are among the most dangerous in the world, despite patrols from EU and other foreign naval forces.

Somalia, riven by war, has had no functioning government since 1991, allowing pirates to operate along the lawless coast, almost with impunity.

Alternativa romanului lui Jules Vernes « Căpitan la 15 ani » în Republica Socialistă România: muncă voluntară pe şantierul de îmbunătăţiri funciare (2)

Îţi trebuia ceva efort să mişti din loc pămîntul după ce îndreptai malul. Îţi mai trebuia şi ceva condiţie fizică. Eu nu aveam aşa ceva. Nu am primit cînd s-a împărţit. Sau am fost trecut cu vederea. Sau pur şi simplu s-au gîndit că mie nu îmi trebuie aşa ceva.

Trebuia să stăm trei sau patru săptămîni. Pentru mine prima săptămînă a fost mai dură. Nu eram obişnuit cu munca fizică. Ei, nici cu cea chimică, dacă tot întrebaţi. Dar nu era rău pentru că după-masa era liber. Nu aveam voie să fumăm, să ne îmbătăm şi să plecăm acasă. Dar eram trataţi omeneşte. Nu aveam statut de deţinuţi politici. Eram utecişti, ce mama sărăciei! Cum jumătate din clasa mea era compusă din etnici germani, mă gîndeam cam cum percepeau ei munca asta voluntară pe şantier. Probabil că se gîndeau că nu e rău deocamdată şi îşi aduceau aminte de ce le povesteau părinţii şi bunicii că s-a întîmplat după război. Dar să nu politizăm tovarăşi!

 Mergea greu. Lopata era grea şi habar n-aveam cum ar trebui să o folosesc. În viaţa mea nu am mai “taluzat” un canal de irigaţie. Am făcut imediat bătături. A început chinul. Soarele ardea destul de tare aşa că mi-am propus să-mi sabotez propria persoană şi deci şi taluzarea: mi-am dat jos maieul. În seria de dinainte unii au avut parte de nişte arsuri clasa întîi, de i-au trimis acasă cu arsuri de gradul II. Deci, informaţia trebuia folosită. Pauza de 10 a trecut repede şi pe la ora unu încă mă mai căzneam să lopătez pământul îndărătnic pe malul canalului în sus. Dar el se împotrivea. Supraveghetorul n-a fost mulţumit de munca mea, nici eu de soarele care nu m-a ars destul şi nici de mâncarea iute ca boala de la cantina mizeră a şantierului. Singurul incident haios a avut loc în momentul când a apărut camionul să ne transporte la barăci. Am dat toţi buzna, dar şoferul a frînat şi a dat să întoarcă camionul. A fost asaltat imediat de cei mai nerăbdători şi nebădăioşi dintre noi. În timpul manevrei de întoarcere, unul dintre aceştia a reuşit să se agaţe de oblonul din spate, dar la una dintre hârtoape spatele camionului a fost proiectat brusc în sus. Am văzut cu o ia şi el în sus, dar cînd a coborît, a coborît de tot: a dat cu fundul de pământ, stârnind râsul întregiului detaşament. După masă, l-am luat pe colegul meu de bancă, Kaposta Iosif şi am dat o raită la birtul din centrul satului, aflat la vreo trei kilometri. Nu riscam nimic, tatăl său era activist de partid. O bere şi un biliard cu popice. Pentru un sat amărât de la graniţa cu Ungaria nu era chiar aşa de rău. N-am câştigat nici la popice şi nici nu am reuşit să mă afum. Întorşi pe şantier am constatat că directorul adjunct al liceului ne-a ratat prezenţa în tabără. Ce păcat pentru el. În baracă urla Led Zeppelin din toată puterea unui mag cu patru piste. Era aproape zece seara şi se întunecase. Proful mai bătrân, de altfel destul de apatic pînă atunci, n-a mai rezistat. A început să urle ca apucat de ceva. De ce nu ştiam, că nu se vedea nimic. Toţi am încremenit. „Good Times Bad Times” i se opriră în gîtul lui Robert Plant. Eram nişte depravaţi, leneşi, cretini şi on ză top of evrising, făceam prea mare gălăgie. Ca nişte descreieraţi. Discursul părea copiat din fonoteca de aur a fürerului. Mă aşteptam ca în final să pocnim toţi din călcîie şi să răcnim la unison „Jawol meine Fürer!” Însă, Tibi Tajts, un coleg foarte paşnic, ce nu l-ai auzit vreodată ţipînd, i-a luat apărarea profului: