Janis Schonfeld, a 46-year-old interior designer living in California, had suffered with depression since she was a teenager. She’d never sought help with the condition until she saw a newspaper ad in 1997. The UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute was looking for volunteer subjects for a drug trial to test a new antidepressant called venlafaxine (Effexor). Schonfeld, a wife and mother—whose depression had escalated to the point where she had actually entertained thoughts of suicide—jumped at the chance to be part of the trial.
Whereas once heavy opiates like OxyContin and Vicodin were reserved for extreme pain or cancer, they’re becoming more commonly prescribed for arthritis and other conditions. Every year this results in thousands of emergency room deaths. While efforts to regulate and clamp down on abuse are being made, it won’t make a dent in the demand unless we find a new treatment. Enter the placebo.
We’ve all heard the adage “age is nothing but a number.” Life is a little more complicated than this quote allows but there is truth in the saying. As we know, how we think impacts how we feel and vice versa. The same principle applies to our view of aging.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “old?” Do you picture a wrinkly, forgetful person who suffers from some kind of chronic ailment? Don’t feel bad if this is the vision that came to you because that is the one presented to us.
Portrayals of older people in television and movies rely on a very specific formula. The characters are typically either inept or laughable to the point that they are the butt of the joke. These depictions matter because they program into us a negative view of getting older.
In 2005, researchers at Yale studied a group of 76 television viewers. Participants who watched the most television had a more negative view of aging than those who were less-frequent viewers. This is significant because we’re being conditioned to believe that getting older is always a terrible experience and if we take that information to heart then we’ve set ourselves on the path to subconsciously create that future destiny.
It’s important to realize that aging is often a very positive experience. With age comes wisdom and a greater understanding of the world and our place in it. Most of us tend to slow down. That doesn’t mean we give up, it means we’re less stressed and better able to take life in stride. A lot of older folks are physically active, maybe not at the same level, but they still go for runs and do other activities.
Changing how we think about getting “old” can have a profound impact on our health. In a separate study at Yale, researchers asked more than 600 people aged 50 and older to complete a survey about their perceptions of aging. The results are incredible. Participants who held a positive outlook had lower instances of cardiac disease, better memory than their more negative counterparts, and were more likely to recover from illness or injury.
The biggest finding – those with a healthier view of aging lived longer. The median survival rate for this group was an astonishing 7.5 years longer! To put this into perspective, a person with low cholesterol or low blood pressure can expect to live four years longer than someone who has these issues. Simply put, changing our beliefs about aging appears to be a greater indicator of longevity than many other factors including socioeconomic background and gender.
Of course, we know how we think impacts how we feel. Why then, do we continue to assign gloom and doom to a process that doesn’t have a predetermined outcome? It could be that we associate getting older with getting closer to dying. Sadly, it’s this association that sends many to an early grave.
So, what do we do? The first step is to take an honest look at where you are in your life. Do you forget something trivial like where you put your keys and chalk it up to having a senior moment? Making this kind of leap without the proper evidence only further enables this habit of believing that your life is dictated by your age. Once you start reinforcing this belief system it’s only matter of time before your body and mind start to behave accordingly.
That doesn’t mean you should swing to the opposite extreme and sign up to climb Everest when you have a heart condition. Your days of climbing mountains aren’t over but you may want to go with something a little easier. It’s all about understanding and acknowledging your limitations and finding a way to make them work for you.
In the end all of us need to decide what we want our future to look like. If you can imagine what that life looks, sounds, and feels like then you can start to live it now. And when you do, you’ll find that whether you’re 71 or 17, age is really nothing but a number.
When flying Jennifer Aniston always boards an airplane with her right foot first. Michael Jordan wore his college shorts underneath his NBA uniform for his entire career. Jordan ended up winning six championships and the 46-year-old Aniston has flown countless times without incident.
Of course you don’t have to be famous to believe in superstitions. Many of us have uttered the phrase “knock on wood” or avoided stepping under ladders in the hopes of warding off bad luck. Superstitions are largely innocuous and allow for at least the illusion of control in situations where we feel like we have none. This begs the question: do superstitions work and if so why?
For this discussion it’s helpful to think about the nature of superstitions. Early humans had little information about the world they inhabited. They created associations based off their experiences. Say it had been raining for days and stopped suddenly when a person performed a specific action or picked up a certain object.
Our ancestors lacked access to sophisticated meteorological equipment and didn’t know the storm had moved out of the region. Instead, they related the change in weather to something they had done. Lacking any other evidence, this cause and effect belief system makes sense and indeed was reinforced by a lack of deeper knowledge.
We like to think we live in a pretty rational time in history. Our embrace of the scientific method, whereby an idea must be regularly tested before proven, should make us immune to irrational thinking. However, we know this simply isn’t true. We’re all prone to assumptions and beliefs that don’t make sense within this larger understanding.
Modern medicine has changed the course of human history. Advances in disease prevention and treatment have allowed us to live longer, healthier lives. Our expanded knowledge of the human body has provided order to what seemed like chaos. We currently have more control of our destiny than any other time in history.
Yet, for all the advances in science and medicine many answers remain. The strength of current Western methodology is its reliance on evidence gathered through study and/or experimentation. This strength can also be seen as a weakness because anything viewed as not “mainstream” is either ignored or ridiculed to the point of irrelevance.
An offshoot of this philosophy is the long-held belief that the mind and the body are two different systems that have no influence over each other. Just a few years ago the idea that your thoughts can positively or negatively impact your body would have been laughed off as pseudo-science. Now, thanks in part to the process I described above, we’re starting to understand that these systems are intimately connected.
I’m sure all of us cut ourselves at some point during our childhood and the first thing we did was to rush directly to our mothers for help. She may have addressed this seemingly devastating trauma at the time with all of her attention, a small detailed examination followed by soap and water, some calm reassuring words, a warm embrace, and then a Band-Aid. At that moment, the pain very likely went away…and you ‘felt’ better.