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The Fountain of Youth Might Be Real, and It's in Your Head

04/29/2015 12:41 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

A group of men sit in a monastery converted to a hotel lobby in 1959 chatting about current events. Fidel Castro is causing an uproar after taking over Cuba, parents are standing in line to buy their daughters a first edition Barbie, Alaska and Hawaii aren't states yet, and The USSR just put the first manmade object on the moon.

But outside, things are different. It's 1981 and the talk of the day is the outrageous inflation rate, Lady Diana's marriage to Prince Charles, and American Airlines' new frequent flyer program.

The space between these two worlds -- one real and one an elaborate reenactment -- was created by Ellen Langer, a pioneering psychologist conducting an experiment on the power of your mind to stop -- or even reverse -- the effects of aging.

She was trying to answer a preposterous question: Can putting someone's mind in a younger era cause their body to follow? The answer was equally preposterous: yes.

Compared to a control group who lived in the same conditions, the men who walked into the experiment (slouched and aided by canes) five days earlier walked out taller, smarter, and more independent. They were physically stronger, mentally sharper, and they could see and hear better. They even looked younger to people who were unaware they'd been part of an aging experiment. [1]

If an experiment like this tells us anything, it's that your mind can play an incredibly powerful role in the health of your body, and there are simple things you can do to both look, feel, and perform like you're younger.

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Image courtesy of Brandon Chambers

How Your Environment Determines Your Age

About 10 years ago, my grandma decided it was time for her to move out of her home after living alone. She moved to a retirement home where she fit right in was still very independent. Soon after, she met a man, Evaret, and they got married (at 80+!).

But Evaret had looming health problems and they eventually became too much to manage on their own. They moved to a nursing facility where he could get the care he needed.

It wasn't long after the move that Nana's health began to slip, too. Each time I'd visit, things were a little worse. As Evaret -- and everyone else in the nursing home -- slipped, Nana slipped, too.

Then, Evaret passed away. We all miss him terribly -- Nana especially. But something happened after that. She started... getting better. There's no miracle here. She hasn't mysteriously turned back into a 20-something, but her health has improved, she's regained a bit of independence she'd lost, and her new roommate has given her an opportunity to get to know someone new and talk about her life on a daily basis -- something Evaret wasn't able to do in his final days.

A whole world or research has documented and confirmed what she experienced. Unless properly dealt with, people often don't thrive when they go to live in nursing homes. [2] When you put someone in an environment where they're regularly reminded they're old and no one expects much from them anymore, they fulfill those expectations and their bodies wither.

But Langer's experiment showed that just the opposite is true, as well. If you give someone (perhaps yourself?) the opportunity to act younger, they'll feel younger and their bodies will perform like it, too.

Few who read this will be doing so from their bed at a nursing home, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't heed the warning. The body of science suggests your mind is incredibly susceptible to the environment you put it in, and your body is likely to act the age your mind tells it to.

How To Look And Feel Younger

The science around anti-aging is young (pun absolutely intended), but the promises of man and medicine to stop and reverse it are as old as time. In a world of murky waters where snake oil is peddled on every corner, it's healthy to be skeptical of any promise to turn back the clock on your body.

But from what we know about the workings of the mind, it's affect on your body, and how your environment manipulates it, there are a few simple environmental changes you can make that require spending no money, taking any questionable drugs, or going through strange medical procedures.

  1. Keep some mementos from your youth. Don't underestimate the power of nostalgia. Giving your brain cues from the past can sharpen it and encourage your body to do the same. When the men in Langer's experiment were asked to act as if it were 20 years earlier, their bodies acted like it, too.
  2. Surround yourself with people who don't limit themselves based on age. Your friends who say, "I'm too old for that" can be bad for your health. If you want to feel and perform like you're younger, you need to prime your mind by surrounding yourself with people who are doing the same.
  3. Don't spend time fretting about your appearance. One of the key parts of Langer's experiment was the complete absence of mirrors. There was nowhere for participants to look to be reminded that they were older than they were acting.
  4. Challenge yourself to do things you can't. An incredibly important part of youth is how you develop yourself through trials and challenges. As you get older, though, the focus on development diminishes. But if you want your mind and body to stay sharp, challenging yourself to learn and do new things will play a big roll in your success.

No quackery, magic potions, or spells required. The science tells us we might not need it, anyway. To look and feel younger, no matter how old you are today, you need only sharpen your mind, and your body will follow.

I'll heed that advice right now. I'm off to '90s Dance Night. If only I could remember where I left my keys.

Tyler Tervooren founded Riskology.co, where he shares research and insights about mastering your psychology by taking smarter risks. For more, join his Smart Riskologist Newsletter.

This article was originally published at Riskology.co

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