“Drinks in the hall after the service,” said the vicar. “Our esteemed treasurer Finbar is celebrating his 30th birthday.” Laughter in the congregation. In the church hall Finbar stood proudly next to his Nigerian wife Agatha, a practising psychologist 20 years his junior. 80 years young, he was upright, slim, well-dressed and relaxed. He could have been any age from 60 upwards.
Something important has happened over the past ten years: 80 is no longer very old. Of course, life expectancy has not yet reached 90 on average, though it’s heading that way, and many people suffer debilitation and illness after 80. But many people do not. An increasingly number of our peers are now reaching 80 in such good health that it is difficult to distinguish them from 50 year olds. It is important to notice and, if possible, socialise with people like Finbar. From childhood we have been programmed to expect one thing and one thing only when we hit 80: death.
The received wisdom is that older generations are more likely to cling to the familiar, and are afraid of change. But this is simply untrue, since older people adapt to huge changes – retirement, death of a spouse, reduced income, moving into new accommodation. Older people are also far from set in their ways and incapable of learning new things. Nicholas Danigelis, a sociologist at the University of Vermont, has found that all the evidence suggests that as people age their attitudes do not become more rigid. “It’s just not true,” he says. “More people are changing in a liberal direction than in a conservative direction.” Even those who are conservative may have started off even more so. The more years under our belt, the more ideas we are exposed to, and the more likely we therefore are to modulate our views. By comparing surveys of various age groups taken over a span of more than 30 years, sociologists have found that in general Americans’ views veer more towards the liberal as they grow older. A study by the University of Illinois suggests that older people are very open to new experiences. “The common assumption about personality is that it is hard-wired and won’t change, but this study contradicts that quite strongly,” said Brent Roberts, professor at the university’s department of psychology. This is true especially if older people continue to nurture their cognitive skills through education, reading, socialising etc. The perpetuation of the myth that older people are incapable of change is always damaging to elders, since relatives and those in the medical and caring professions will not bother to encourage them to learn new things, even if this knowledge is crucial to monitoring a physical condition (such as diabetes) that affects their health.
Younger people may beg to differ with this view. They raise their eyes to the ceiling if older people complain the supermarket has been rearranged. However, older people have had to learn and unlearn many new supermarket arrangements in their lifetimes, and yet another one is often simply an irritation, not an invitation to learn something exciting and new. Young people are also sometimes reluctant themselves to change their way of doing things – imagine what would happen if smart phones and the internet were suddenly “down” for a weekend.
Is human lifespan a non-adaptable characteristic? Is it really utopian to imagine that in the not so distant future, over 80 year olds will no longer be the elderly, infirm citizens we have always held them to be? Will our DNA evolve to lengthen lifespan and vitality?
Authors such as Bruce Lipton believe spontaneous evolution is a possibility. He gives the example of somatic hypermutation, a cellular mechanism by which the immune system adapts suddenly and rapidly to new elements that confront it (for example, microbes). During this phase, B cells undergo extremely rapid mutation, a million times more rapidly than the normal rate of mutation across the genome. In 1988 John Cairns, a geneticist, published research on bacteria entitled The Origin of Mutants. Lactose-intolerant bacteria were exposed to an environment where the only nutrient was lactose. He found that spontaneous mutations began to occur in the genes associated with lactose metabolism. New colonies of lactose-eating bacteria developed. It appears that there is a kind of innate intelligence at work in living organisms that enables them to adapt quickly to a changing environment. These mutations occur mostly at “hotspots” in the DNA known as hypervariable regions. Of all the mutations that occur, only some will match the new circumstances. The others will die (through apoptosis – cell death), but those that fit will be introduced into the gene chain, replacing the defective genes, which are cut out and discarded.
The question is, if cells can adapt to a new environment, can we trigger adaptation using intention? Can we cause mutation by thought? If the mind can affect the body as evident in the placebo effect, is a new emotional environment (not forgetting the peptide hypothesis, where there is a mood there is a molecule) or even a new “conscious” environment also capable of triggering mutations?
It may sound nuts, but psychiatry can confirm that different diseases manifest when different personalities take over mental patients, suggesting that the mind has enormous power over the physical state of the body. If by our beliefs we can increase antibodies in the immune system as happens in the placebo effect, and if stress can reduce our resistance to disease, can thought trigger other responses, such as DNA repair and the slowing down of the ageing process? Will we one day be able to manipulate our bodies so that every new cell that is born is one mutated according to our desires?
Making statements such as I’m not getting any younger sends the wrong message to our cells, and to our DNA. Some serious reprogramming is now necessary if we are to join the ranks of Finbar and his peers. Vigilance and the control of our thoughts, words and feelings is therefore de rigueur.