Can you trick your ageing body into feeling younger?

Actress Liz Smith in 1975 garb Liz Smith - Nana in The Royle Family - found she could walk all but unaided

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If elderly people dress, live and talk as they did in their heyday, does this help them feel younger and fitter? Michael Mosley explains how he tested this theory on six faces from the past.

What's your brain age?

Ugly Mugs game to test mental agility
  • The Young Ones is on BBC One Tuesday to Thursday, 14-16 Sept at 2100 BST
  • And test your mental agility with games such as Ugly Mugs (pictured)

Is slowing down with age all in the mind?

To find out, I recruited six celebrities aged between 76 and 88 to live in my science lab - a country house decked out like a 1970s time capsule. The project was designed as a follow-up to an experiment first done by Professor Ellen Langer of Harvard University.

In 1979, Ellen was investigating the extent to which ageing is a product of our state of mind. To find out, she and her students devised a study they called the "counter-clockwise study".

It involved taking a group of elderly men and putting them into the world of 1959. The question she wanted to answer was, if we took their minds back 20 years, would their bodies reflect this change?

Our experiment had similar ambitions; to take a group of people and make them feel younger by recreating the world they had left behind 35 years ago.

Start Quote

Michael Mosley

There were shag pile carpets to trip over, door ridges to step over and lots of slippery linoleum”

End Quote Michael Mosley on the physical challenges

Our volunteers were actors Liz Smith (88), Sylvia Syms (76) and Lionel Blair (78), cricket umpire Dickie Bird (77), newsreader Kenneth Kendall (86) and former Daily Mirror editor Derek Jameson (80).

They agreed to live in our time capsule house for a week, during which they dressed in 1970s clothes, slept in replicas of their very own 70s bedrooms, watched television from that era, and talked about 1975 in the present tense.

It proved to be a fascinating but draining experience - for both experimenters and experimentees.

From the beginning we made it clear to our volunteers that they would be expected to look after themselves. Research in nursing homes shows clearly that giving residents control over their own lives and their own choices has a hugely beneficial impact on health and happiness.

In one study, residents who were allowed to choose a plant to care for, and when and where to receive visitors, were found 18 months later to be significantly more cheerful, active and alert. They were also far more likely to be still alive.

Another thing about our 1970s house was that it was full of physical challenges. There were shag pile carpets to trip over, door ridges to step over and lots of slippery linoleum. Research on mice has shown that those who live in a challenging environment live nearly 30% longer than those who in a secure but boring environment.

In this spirit, on their arrival, our volunteers were asked to carry their bags up a flight of stairs to their bedrooms. It was the first time they'd been forced into such physical activity in many years, and they were not happy.

But they rose to the challenge. When they started at the bottom of the stairs, a couple were adamant it would be impossible to make it to the top. Watching from a laboratory close by, it was hard to resist going to their aid.

Slowly, step by step, they succeeded. We had made them question whether, perhaps, they were more physically capable than they had given themselves credit for.

Dickie Bird in the 1970s, and right, dressed up in 1975 garb Dickie Bird's memory and stamina improved

It was a tough initiation, but a core element of Ellen's original experiment was the idea that our prior beliefs play a huge part in how we perceive the world, and how we perceive ourselves. By immersing our volunteers in a 1970s world, we were hoping to make them think of themselves as younger, fitter and healthier.

For many of them, the 70s had been a golden decade, a highlight of their careers.

We took Dickie Bird back to Lords to relive the atmosphere. As he walked through the tunnel, onto the grounds, he blossomed before our eyes. Dickie had had a stroke, suffered 18 months of illness, lost confidence and come to think of himself as old. By the end of the week, his confidence was back and he showed remarkable improvement across a range of tests, including memory and stamina.

Start Quote

Professor Ellen Langer, who did original experiment

It's too easy to have everybody take care of us. But you can be helped to death”

End Quote Professor Ellen Langer Harvard University

Over the week we gave all the celebrities tasks to do, but we also left them to fend for themselves. For up to 12 hours a day, we observed them through our surveillance cameras and, just as Ellen had discovered all those years before, we saw great changes.

Half way through the week, Liz Smith took 148 steps with the aid of just one stick. For someone who had not walked without both sticks since her stroke - and who often relied on a wheelchair - it was a real breakthrough. She was no longer willing to be limited by the physical constraints she had imposed on herself.

At the end of the week we put our guinea pigs through the same rigorous battery of physical and psychological tests we had at the beginning. Memory, mood, flexibility, stamina and even eye sight had improved in almost all of them.

The results were not uniform, but in some cases they shed up to 20 years in their apparent biological age.

It made a compelling case for Ellen Langer's argument that opening our minds to what's possible can lead to better health, whatever our age.

Below is a selection of your comments

I am 62. Last year - having left school in 1965 with four O levels - I embarked on a four-year full time Bsc (hons) psychology degree. At home, during the summer break, I still struggle to recall the names for simple household objects, in line with the aging process we "older people" come to expect... but at university surrounded by 18-40-yr-olds, I remember enough to sit a two-hour exam and get an A.

Barbara Prater, Eyemouth, Berwickshire

Loved the mental agility tests - once I got over being distracted by memories of my family having those exact same mugs in the 70s, I scored rather well in Ugly Mugs. The Spacehopper one, less so...

Thea, Sheffield

I was a bit upset to only get an age of 28 on the Ps and Qs test when I got 18 on all the others. Perhaps at 40 my typing is slowing up a bit.

Ed, Clacton, UK

Perhaps some of it was being told to just get on with it and do things for yourself. Fierce independence seems to be a major factor in living life to the full for longer. Being made to do things may have been a major facto in the results. The tests had me in stitches. I've never been able to do Kim's game so no surprise I was aged 75 on the memory game. I scored 61, 35 and 19 on the others. My real age is 56 so no idea what this is telling me except the tests make assumptions about your ability to do them when younger. At age 20 I would still have scored about 75 on the memory test.

Moira, Farnborough, UK

It is a good idea to keep a job after 60, and to do a few things that seem a bit risky, such as dinghy sailing. No matter how passionate you are about hobbies, you will never get up at 6am to persue them, hence the need for at least a small job. A job can provide human interactions (love, hate etc), physical activity, memory exercise, learning and problem solving - and you will live longer.

John, Horsham

I'm only young and perhaps I'm not best placed to judge but surely keeping one's mind young involves immersing oneself in modern culture to an extent, not living in the past and embracing what you did as a youth? I see so many people around me who are stuck in the era they grew up in, eg listening to the same old music, never trying anything new and it's ageing them. I'm not sure it's healthy in the long-term.

Beth, Coventry

I watched the first programme and wondered how did they account for the influence of being in a group and the stimulation this provided (company, conversation, camaraderie, etc) as opposed to any changes coming about through living and thinking themselves into the 1970s?

Kathy, Durham, UK

I agree with Kathy. It would seem far more likely that challenges such as being compelled to walk up stairs with heavy suitcases may have been more significant. This is reflected in the way hospitals now treat patients after serious operations - they encourage activity as early as is physically possible. Not only helping the physical recovery but making the patient feel a sense of accomplishment and independence, although good memories and sharing them cannot be discounted.

Linda, Dollar

I couldn't agree more. Recently relocated and found myself living quite close to a public golf course. I thought "why not", although I hadn't played in 25 years. Now coming up to 67, I bought some clubs, buggy, etc and started. Never thought I would be able to play a full 18 holes, but after six months of practice, regularly do so now with minimal effort. Feeling so much better physically and mentally. It is far too easy to settle into a "rut" of reading, watching TV or a computer screen, subsequently losing any pretence at exercise, and convincing oneself that one can't.

Alison, Melbourne, Australia

When I looked in a mirror I used to wonder who that old bloke was who was looking back at me. That is until the death of my wife in July this year. That made me think, not so much of my age - 70 - but of my mortality. I ride a 1100cc motorbike, and also cycle 100 miles a week and can keep up with much younger men until the hills get too steep. Does this make me younger than my years, or is it just that I've been blessed with good health and have never had a serious injury?

Stuart Downie, London

This is a form of medical voyeurism. Whilst the aims are interesting, the consequences could be very damaging. It is all very well to say that by "tricking" the body into believing it is younger, individuals will live fuller lives. I might feel younger, but I know full well that I'm not; I also remember what it was like to be fully active and know that, due to irreversible aging, I cannot be as I was 30 or 40 years earlier, which depresses me. This rather undermines the benefits.

GC, Southend-on-Sea, Essex

I'm 67 and used to go caving well into my 40s. The opportunity arose last week for another cave trip. At first, I decided against it thinking I was past it, but I went nevertheless. All my old skills came back and I kept up with the youngsters without any problems. I ached a bit afterwards, but the experience has given me renewed confidence to keep "going for it!"

Fozzie, Highbridge, UK

I enjoyed watching this, but felt the BBC would have done more good for the older generation if they'd looked at The University of the Third Age (U3A) which does so much to provide people with hobbies, friends and social activcities in their retirement. In my local Runnymede U3A, we have over 25 groups, from bridge through to walking. Do not be put off by the word "University" - this has nothing to do with qualitications - just the University of Life.

Joy Miles, Chertsey, Surrey

My grandfather died last month aged 90. A gardener in this younger years, he refused to give up his garden, although he had help to mow the lawn and cut the hedges in the last couple of years. His independence continued, riding his bicycle until his late 80s, keeping his rayburn going, including getting the coal in twice a day. Putting him into a home, having his independence taken away, would have killed him years ago.

Karen Rosier, Rhayader, Powys

It's a matter of psychology and fitness. As a enthusiastic dancer I frequently end up partnering women - girls even, who are some 30 years younger than me. It certainly boosts the ego and more importantly, forces you to keep up with them. Like most active dancers I frequently get mistaken for being a decade younger than I am. It is not so much physical appearance as the way you move I think (Bruce Forsyth is a classic example). The study observes what most dancers already know and what you will see amongst any group of older dancers.

Andrew Stone, Greenock, Scotland

Taking away independence and decision making means elderly people learn to become helpless. The balance is to keep them in a challenging but secure environment. The experiment is interesting, but at the end of it all will they revert back to their old habits? As a nation we should keep our elders involved. And they have to make an effort to contribute. New experiences and challenges are crucial to having this sort of experiment rolled out nationwide and becoming sustainable.

Len Jones, Cheshire

I am 53 years young, I still play (veterans league) football every Sunday, listen to all my 70s and 80s music on my iPod as much as I can, and I'm convinced I'll be the 12th Doctor after Matt Smith (much to the amusement of my wife). I really do believe that if you think and act young the body will follow suit. Young at heart actually works.

Colin Wood, Rayleigh, Essex

I am 67, and recently took on a rescue dog, a GSD who is mad as a hatter and needs loads of excercise which I have to provide. I also push my disabled wife around in a wheelchair, up hill and down, when we visit NT gardens. I feel fitter and happier now than I ever did when I was young. Who cares what year it is? Get on with life while you can, and forget about age.

G Curtis, Redruth, UK

I must say I like Michael Mosley's sense of humour: "... residents who were allowed to choose a plant to care for, and when and where to receive visitors, were found 18 months later to be significantly more cheerful, active and alert. They were also far more likely to be still alive."

Michael, Bedford, England

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