In 1981 Harvard psychologist Prof Langer recruited a group of elderly men all in their late 70s or 80s for a “week of reminiscence”. Surrounded by props from the 50s they were asked to act as if it was actually 22 years earlier, 1959. They were surrounded by mid-century mementos such as 1950s issues of Life magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, a black-and-white television, a vintage radio.
They discussed the events of the time: the launch of the first U.S. satellite, Castro’s victory ride into Havana, Nikita Khrushchev and the need for bomb shelters. There was entertainment (a screening of the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder with Jimmy Stewart) and spirited discussions of such 1950s sports greats as Mickey Mantle and Floyd Patterson.
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’.”
As the week went by, Prof Langer began to notice that they were walking faster and their confidence had improved. One man decided to do without his walking stick. At the end of the week they played an impromptu game of ‘touch’ American football.
Physiological measurements were taken both before and after the week and found the men improved across the board. Their gait, dexterity, speed of movement, cognitive abilities and their memory were all measurably improved. Their joints were more flexible, their shoulders wider, their fingers not only more agile, but longer and less gnarled by arthritis. Their blood pressure dropped and, even more surprisingly, their eyesight and hearing got better.
In 2010 the BBC produced a reality TV show mimicking this study with older celebrities. Again, the differences were profound. You can see Dickie Bird’s in the video here.
C. Alexander, E. Langer, Higher stages of human development: perspectives of adult growth, New York: Oxford University Press, (1990)