Anti-Aging Psychotherapy: Dr. Ellen Langer Versus Your Green Smoothie By Howard Rosenthal, EdD on 1/7/19 - 12:20 PM

The anti-aging movement is taking off at warp speed. Many people are willing to do whatever it takes to live longer, better, or both. Take me. I often start my day off with a green drink. No, I'm not talking about mixing a few avocado slices with a cucumber in a blender. No way. I'm a serious player! I'm talking about ingesting a serious organic product with nearly 100 superfoods. Yep, I said 100. I want something that packs a punch. But wait, I'm just getting warmed up. I'll often chase it with a liquid supplement sporting well over 230 other superfoods (I'm up to over 300 for those of you with a touch of OCD). I might also swallow a teaspoon of bee pollen, a whole food multivitamin, and a supplement packed with nearly 50 fruits and veggies, just for nutritional insurance.

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Since this won't fill me up, and my behavior is anything but consistent from day to day, I will often wolf down something healthy like an apple, or more likely, a food source theoretically not so healthy, such as a can of commercial soup loaded with enough sodium to keep the average NFL team bloated until Super Bowl Sunday. You might ask, "Well do you really feel like a million bucks on this regimen?" (I was hoping you wouldn't ask.) Um, truthfully, no, not really.

Some research on superfoods and antioxidants has not demonstrated longevity benefits in animals and on occasion has shortened their lives! Moreover, experts don't agree on what constitutes a superfood and what doesn’t. Take coffee and caffeine. One day the news reports they are poison, while the very next day you will hear that nothing matches their nutritional benefits. It's enough to make a therapist see a therapist!

Ditto for diets. One expert advocates a plant-based diet while another castigates you for consuming an apple loaded with sugar and recommends near zero carb lifestyle. The only remedy we know of that is almost guaranteed to extend our lives is caloric restriction, aka nearly starving yourself—and who wants to do that for the next 50 plus years? And just for the record, even some of the zealots in this arena are now backing off and claiming calorie restriction is not turning out to be the panacea we thought it was.

Okay great. So now what?

Well, what if we are all barking up the wrong tree? Enter Harvard psychologist of mindfulness fame, Ellen Langer. What if anti-aging is mainly psychological? In her landmark book Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, Dr. Langer shares a study she performed in 1981 that was a total game changer.

She and her colleagues took men in their seventies and eighties to a monastery in New Hampshire. The monastery was set up as if it was 1959 or 22 years earlier. The books, radio programs, television shows, and newspapers were from the 1950s. One group of men was instructed to embrace the present moment but reminisce about the era. The other group was told to pretend they actually were 22 years younger and to act as if it was actually 1959 once again. Hence, if a man was currently retired, but owned an auto repair shop in 1959, he was instructed to act and talk as if he owns the auto repair facility in the present; which again is 1959.

The results were spectacular. Although both groups of men made some anti-aging progress, the group who imagined they were younger, and acted as if it was the 50s again, made tremendous progress and literally seemed to age backward. Biomarkers of aging including strength, flexibility, vision, hearing, and cognitive abilities improved in just five days! They even looked younger. Langer reports that a group of the men gave up their canes and she was playing touch football with them by the end of their stay. Show me a green drink that can instill that kind of change and I'll say, "I'll have whatever he is drinking."

Yes, there were minor criticisms of the study such as the fact that the results were illuminated in her book rather than published in a professional journal and no women were part of the study. Nevertheless, the quintessential question seems to be whether psychotherapists are the real anti-aging specialists. Could we become the premier movers and shakers in the quest for longevity? Should we be attempting to instill an anti-aging mindset in willing clients? Perhaps therapists ought to be at the forefront of the movement using cognitive therapy, hypnosis, guided imagery, mindfulness, and a host of related techniques to roll back the clock. Even Dr. Langer is purportedly contemplating counterclockwise rejuvenation clinics.

Should we trade in our green drinks and cupboards overflowing with vitamins, minerals, enzymes, telomere boosters, workout schedules and the next breakthrough for sessions of creative visualization from the Bill Clinton era? We can lead the charge by decorating our offices with a 1996 ambiance. When the client strolls in Adam Sandler will be on the television showcasing a key scene from the 80s classic movie “Happy Gilmore”.

Everything will go great until your 11-year-old client asks, "Why is that man on television running toward the golf ball?" You can glance at his mother and respond with, "Here, have a piece of candy, dark chocolate is a superfood."

Yeah right. At least for this week! 

File under: Musings and Reflections