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Can you think yourself young? | Science

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For more than a decade, Paddy Jones has been wowing audiences across the world with her salsa dancing. She came to fame on the Spanish talent show Tú Sí Que Vales (You’re Worth It) in 2009 and has since found success in the UK, through Britain’s Got Talent; in Germany, on Das Supertalent; in Argentina, on the dancing show Bailando; and in Italy, where she performed at the Sanremo music festival in 2018 alongside the band Lo Stato Sociale.

Jones also happens to be in her mid-80s, making her the world’s oldest acrobatic salsa dancer, according to Guinness World Records. Growing up in the UK, Jones had been a keen dancer and had performed professionally before she married her husband, David, at 22 and had four children. It was only in retirement that she began dancing again – to widespread acclaim. “I don’t plead my age because I don’t feel 80 or act it,” Jones told an interviewer in 2014.

According to a wealth of research that now spans five decades, we would all do well to embrace the same attitude – since it can act as a potent elixir of life. People who see the ageing process as a potential for personal growth tend to enjoy much better health into their 70s, 80s and 90s than people who associate ageing with helplessness and decline, differences that are reflected in their cells’ biological ageing and their overall life span.

Salsa dancer Paddy Jones, centre.
Salsa dancer Paddy Jones, centre. Photograph: Alberto Terenghi/IPA/Shutterstock

Of all the claims I have investigated for my new book on the mind-body connection, the idea that our thoughts could shape our ageing and longevity was by far the most surprising. The science, however, turns out to be incredibly robust. “There’s just such a solid base of literature now,” says Prof Allyson Brothers at Colorado State University. “There are different labs in different countries using different measurements and different statistical approaches and yet the answer is always the same.”

If I could turn back time

The first hints that our thoughts and expectations could either accelerate or decelerate the ageing process came from a remarkable experiment by the psychologist Ellen Langer at Harvard University.

In 1979, she asked a group of 70- and 80-year-olds to complete various cognitive and physical tests, before taking them to a week-long retreat at a nearby monastery that had been redecorated in the style of the late 1950s. Everything at the location, from the magazines in the living room to the music playing on the radio and the films available to watch, was carefully chosen for historical accuracy.

The researchers asked the participants to live as if it were 1959. They had to write a biography of themselves for that era in the present tense and they were told to act as independently as possible. (They were discouraged from asking for help to carry their belongings to their room, for example.) The researchers also organised twice-daily discussions in which the participants had to talk about the political and sporting events of 1959 as if they were currently in progress – without talking about events since that point. The aim was to evoke their younger selves through all these associations.

To create a comparison, the researchers ran a second retreat a week later with a new set of participants. While factors such as the decor, diet and social contact remained the same, these participants were asked to reminisce about the past, without overtly acting as if they were reliving that period.

Most of the participants showed some improvements from the baseline tests to the after-retreat ones, but it was those in the first group, who had more fully immersed themselves in the world of 1959, who saw the greatest benefits. Sixty-three per cent made a significant gain on the cognitive tests, for example, compared to just 44% in the control condition. Their vision became sharper, their joints more flexible and their hands more dextrous, as some of the inflammation from their arthritis receded.

Quick Guide

What is your age mindset?

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Scientists have developed various measures to assess people’s perceptions of ageing – which may be evident in many different beliefs. Here are a few examples:

1 Do things get better, worse or stay the same as you get older?

2 In each pair of the following words, which one do you associate with retirement and beyond: uninvolved or involved; unable or able; dependent or independent; idle or busy?

3 When does middle age end and old age begin?

If you answered “better” or “the same” on (1) and “involved”, “able”, “independent” and “busy” on (2), you are more likely to experience better health as you age.

On question (3), people who believe old age starts at a later point – over 70 years – live longer than people who believe that old age starts at 60 or younger.

Thank you for your feedback.

As enticing as these findings might seem, Langer’s was based on a very small sample size. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence and the idea that our mindset could somehow influence our physical ageing is about as extraordinary as scientific theories come.

Becca Levy, at the Yale School of Public Health, has been leading the way to provide that proof. In one of her earliest – and most eye-catching – papers, she examined data from the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement that examined more than 1,000 participants since 1975.

The participants’ average age at the start of the survey was 63 years old and soon after joining they were asked to give their views on ageing. For example, they were asked to rate their agreement with the statement: “As you get older, you are less useful”. Quite astonishingly, Levy found the average person with a more positive attitude lived on for 22.6 years after the study commenced, while the average person with poorer interpretations of ageing survived for just 15 years. That link remained even after Levy had controlled for their actual health status at the start of the survey, as well as other known risk factors, such as socioeconomic status or feelings of loneliness, which could influence longevity.

The implications of the finding are as remarkable today as they were in 2002, when the study was first published. “If a previously unidentified virus was found to diminish life expectancy by over seven years, considerable effort would probably be devoted to identifying the cause and implementing a remedy,” Levy and her colleagues wrote. “In the present case, one of the likely causes is known: societally sanctioned denigration of the aged.”

Later studies have since reinforced the link between people’s expectations and their physical ageing, while dismissing some of the more obvious – and less interesting – explanations. You might expect that people’s attitudes would reflect their decline rather than contribute to the degeneration, for example. Yet many people will endorse certain ageist beliefs, such as the idea that “old people are helpless”, long before they should have started experiencing age-related disability themselves. And Levy has found that those kinds of views, expressed in people’s mid-30s, can predict their subsequent risk of cardiovascular disease up to 38 years later.

The most recent findings suggest that age beliefs may play a key role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Tracking 4,765 participants over four years, the researchers found that positive expectations of ageing halved the risk of developing the disease, compared to those who saw old age as an inevitable period of decline. Astonishingly, this was even true of people who carried a harmful variant of the APOE gene, which is known to render people more susceptible to the disease. The positive mindset can counteract an inherited misfortune, protecting against the build-up of the toxic plaques and neuronal loss that characterise the disease.

How could this be?

Behaviour is undoubtedly important. If you associate age with frailty and disability, you may be less likely to exercise as you get older and that lack of activity is certainly going to increase your predisposition to many illnesses, including heart disease and Alzheimer’s.

Importantly, however, our age beliefs can also have a direct effect on our physiology. Elderly people who have been primed with negative age stereotypes tend to have higher systolic blood pressure in response to challenges, while those who have seen positive stereotypes demonstrate a more muted reaction. This makes sense: if you believe that you are frail and helpless, small difficulties will start to feel more threatening. Over the long term, this heightened stress response increases levels of the hormone cortisol and bodily inflammation, which could both raise the risk of ill health.

The consequences can even be seen within the nuclei of the individual cells, where our genetic blueprint is stored. Our genes are wrapped tightly in each cell’s chromosomes, which have tiny protective caps, called telomeres, which keep the DNA stable and stop it from becoming frayed and damaged. Telomeres tend to shorten as we age and this reduces their protective abilities and can cause the cell to malfunction. In people with negative age beliefs, that process seems to be accelerated – their cells look biologically older. In those with the positive attitudes, it is much slower – their cells look younger.

For many scientists, the link between age beliefs and long-term health and longevity is practically beyond doubt. “It’s now very well established,” says Dr David Weiss, who studies the psychology of ageing at Martin-Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. And it has critical implications for people of all generations.

Birthday cards sent to Captain Tom Moore for his 100th birthday
Birthday cards sent to Captain Tom Moore for his 100th birthday – many cards for older people have a less respectful tone. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Our culture is saturated with messages that reinforce the damaging age beliefs. Just consider greetings cards, which commonly play on of images depicting confused and forgetful older people. “The other day, I went to buy a happy 70th birthday card for a friend and I couldn’t find a single one that wasn’t a joke,” says Martha Boudreau, the chief communications officer of AARP, a special interest group (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons) that focuses on the issues of over-50s.

She would like to see greater awareness – and intolerance – of age stereotypes, in much the same way that people now show greater sensitivity to sexism and racism. “Celebrities, thought leaders and influencers need to step forward,” says Boudreau.

In the meantime, we can try to rethink our perceptions of our own ageing. Various studies show that our mindsets are malleable. By learning to reject fatalistic beliefs and appreciate some of the positive changes that come with age, we may avoid the amplified stress responses that arise from exposure to negative stereotypes and we may be more motivated to exercise our bodies and minds and to embrace new challenges.

We could all, in other words, learn to live like Paddy Jones.

When I interviewed Jones, she was careful to emphasise the potential role of luck in her good health. But she agrees that many people have needlessly pessimistic views of their capabilities, over what could be their golden years, and encourages them to question the supposed limits. “If you feel there’s something you want to do, and it inspires you, try it!” she told me. “And if you find you can’t do it, then look for something else you can achieve.”

Whatever our current age, that’s surely a winning attitude that will set us up for greater health and happiness for decades to come.

This is an edited extract from The Expectation Effect: How your Mindset Can Transform Your Life by David Robson, published by Canongate on 6 January (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Solar storms may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in a given year

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In an approximate 11-year cycle, the sun blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which may disrupt our body clock and ultimately affect our heart



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17 June 2022

A solar storm

Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

Solar storms that disrupt Earth’s magnetic field may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in the US in a given year.

The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. During periods of high activity, it blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field.

These so-called solar storms can cause glitches in our power grids and bring down Earth-orbiting satellites. A handful of studies have also hinted that they increase the risk of …

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UK Covid infection rate rising, with more than a million cases in England | Coronavirus

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Coronavirus infections are rising in the UK, figures have revealed, with experts noting the increase is probably down to the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in the community in England are thought to have had Covid – around 1.13 million people.

The figure is even higher, at one in 45, in both Wales and Northern Ireland, while it was highest in Scotland where, in the week ending 10 June, one in 30 people are thought to have been infected.

While the figures remain below the peak levels of infection seen earlier this year, when around one in 13 people in England had Covid, the findings are a rise on the previous week where one in 70 people in England were thought to be infected. Furthermore, the data reveals increases in all regions of England, except the north-east, and across all age groups.

Experts say that a key factor in the increase is probably the rise of the Covid variants of concern BA.4 and BA.5.

“Infections have increased across all four UK nations, driven by rising numbers of people infected with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.

While Steel said it remained too early to say if this was the start of another wave, others have warned it may already have begun, with increased mixing and travelling among other factors fuelling a rise in cases.

Among concerns scientists have raised are that BA.4, BA.5 and another variant on the rise, BA.2.12.1, replicate more efficiently in human lung cells than BA.2.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the latest figures were not surprising, and might rise further.

“This increase in infection prevalence is likely due to the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which as we have seen elsewhere in Europe, appear to be able to escape immunity generated from previous Omicron subvariants,” she said.

“It is therefore possible that we will continue to see some growth in infection prevalence in the coming weeks and consequently an increase in hospitalisations, although these subvariants do not currently appear to result in any significantly changed severity profile. This does however serve as a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over.”

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NHS to offer women in England drug that cuts recurrence of breast cancer | Breast cancer

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Thousands of women in England with breast cancer are to benefit from a new pill on the NHS which reduces the risk of the disease coming back.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given the green light to abemaciclib, which cuts the chance of breast cancer returning after a patient has had surgery to remove a tumour.

Trials showed that patients who had the drug with hormone therapy had a more than 30% improved chance of their cancer not coming back after surgery, compared with hormone therapy alone.

“It’s fantastic thousands of women with this type of primary breast cancer will now have an additional treatment option available on the NHS to help further reduce the risk of the disease coming back,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now.

“The fear of breast cancer returning or spreading to other parts of their body and becoming incurable can cause considerable anxiety for so many women and their loved ones.

“New effective treatments such as abemaciclib, which can offer more women the chance to further reduce the risk of the disease recurring, are therefore extremely welcome and this is an important step change in the drug options available for this group of patients.”

The twice-a-day pill is suitable for women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-positive early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence who have had surgery. About 4,000 women will benefit initially, Nice said.

Helen Knight, the interim director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said the draft recommendation came less than a month after abemaciclib received its licence.

“The fact that we have been able to produce draft recommendations so quickly is testament to the success of our ambition to support patient access to clinically and cost effective treatments as early as possible,” said Knight. “Until now there have been no targeted treatments for people with this type of breast cancer.

“Abemaciclib with hormone therapy represents a significant improvement in how it is treated because being able to have a targeted treatment earlier after surgery will increase the chance of curing the disease and reduce the likelihood of developing incurable advanced disease.”

Abemaciclib works by targeting and inhibiting proteins in cancer cells which allow the cancer to divide and grow. It normally costs £2,950 for a packet of 56 150mg-tablets, but the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has agreed an undisclosed discounted price for NHS England.

“Thanks in part to this latest deal struck by NHS England, NHS patients will be able to access another new targeted drug for a common and aggressive form of breast cancer,” said Prof Peter Johnson, the cancer director of NHS England.

“Abemaciclib, when used alongside a hormone therapy, offers a new, doubly targeted, treatment option, helping to increase the chances of beating the cancer for good, as well as meeting the NHS’s commitment to delivering improved cancer care under our long-term plan.”

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