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  • Tania Elfersy

To age with a headdress

It was a warm night with clear skies, and we had the cheap seats at the concert.

Actually, there were no seats at all, just a grassy hill at the back of the outdoor venue where we could spread out a blanket, sit or lie down, eat, drink, gaze at the stars, and still enjoy the music that would take us back to our younger days, somewhere in the late 1980s.

“These are the best seats!” I convinced my friend and her husband several times that evening. She had booked our tickets, but they’d both doubted if they were the best choice for us – perhaps we’d enjoy the concert more if we were in the crowd further forward.

The people at the front all stood up from the first song, which meant that we would have had to stand up throughout the concert. No need, my husband and I and then our friends agreed!

After all, it was the end of an exhausting back-to-school week. We settled down and relaxed to enjoy the show. I’m not ashamed to say that I napped a little during one of the slow songs . . . it was perfect.

We could see the singer as a moving dot on the stage, and see her up close on the large screens on either side. Aged 57, the singer was performing as if it were 1989!

Her long black hair was still black; her figure appeared to dance as it always had, clothed in her signature body-hugging outfits. At one point, she shouted out to the crowd how she still fitted into the same size of clothes, decades on.

The crowd roared with delight.

And I wondered.

I admired the singer’s vibrancy, the dedication to her performance, the effort she must make to keep fit and preserve her look. Of course, I know nothing about the pressures faced by those in the limelight, to stay young and unchanged.

And yet, I couldn’t help pondering over how peculiar it is, the way we age in the West.

No one would think it bizarre that my teenage daughter, or even my tween daughter, and I could enter a shop and come out with the same clothes.

And these days with high-fitting jeans being all the rage, why wouldn’t we?

Do I need to explain that my daughters think they’re trendy, while I like them for other reasons? I’m not saying that journeying through midlife and dressing like a teenager or dressing the same as you did decades ago, is good or bad. It’s just over the years, I’ve realized that I want to change. I don't want to look the same as I used to. I want to graduate to some next level of chic. And I think I need a headdress!

When do we become an elder with some serious chunky jewellery to adorn us, or a special colored wrap, or indeed a headdress?

In the West, we don’t.

“Don’t change!” is the message we absorb from all around us.

Color your hair, botox your lines, compare yourself to this photoshopped picture of a star and nip, tuck whatever might give away your age. And when it comes to THE CHANGE, how about delaying it, suppressing it or ignoring it as if it holds no evolutionary advantages or wisdom?

“I’m programming my body into thinking I’m younger!” is what I sometimes hear from women fighting the external physical signs of age.

This is an idea that appears to have evolved from the work of Harvard professor and psychologist, Ellen Langer. Langer conducted the “counterclockwise” experiment in 1981, which involved sending a group of men in their 70s into a converted monastery in New Hampshire for a period of five days. The monastery had been set up as a time-warp to allow the men to live as if it were 1959.

All signs of the current day were banished. Instead, the participants could enjoy magazines, radio and TV shows from 22 years prior. There were no mirrors, but there were pictures of the men as their younger selves. The men dressed and were encouraged to behave as they had done decades ago. By the end of the five days, not only did the participants appear more youthful, there was an improvement in their measurable biomarkers of age — dexterity, grip strength, flexibility, hearing and vision, memory and cognition.

In this experiment, the time-warp was the sugar pill, but neither a time-warp nor a sugar pill can trigger the placebo effect that was witnessed. It must have been the participants’ perceptions, expectations and lightness of thinking during the five days that led to a turnaround in their health.

The placebo effect remains under-researched when one considers its potential to heal patients. Our minds are so powerful that even a mock knee operation carried out on someone with osteoarthritis has been shown to deliver relief equal to that of an actual knee surgery!

What Langer’s counterclockwise experiment demonstrated (as much of her subsequent work does too) is that our thoughts impact how we age and our overall health.

Going back to the concert, perhaps the singer who’s proud of her unchanged looks also believes she’s programming her body to be younger, or indeed that she is part of the time-warp her audience needs so they feel younger – although keeping ourselves as we once were seems exhausting to me.

Perhaps she just adores looking as she always has . . . or maybe she’s afraid to change.

One of my favorite Facebook Groups to hang out in these days is called Gray and Proud. The group has become a space to support women and men transitioning from dyed hair to their natural gray color. It's mostly women who post pictures of themselves in various stages of transition, including their stunning and fully transitioned au naturelle silver, steel or salt and pepper look. Women in the group also share their stories of relief and joy as they find themselves free from gray root awareness, endless trips to the hair salon and harsh hair color – “I wish I’d done this sooner!” many women of all ages proclaim.

Just being exposed to those women’s pictures has allowed me to love my own naturally going-gray look even more! My thoughts about gray hair are changing – some days I even look in the mirror and think my more-pepper-than-salt look is not bold and gray enough!

Every woman should do what she feels is right for her, regarding her hair color, her body, what she wears and how she shows up, and yet as a society, it could benefit us if we were open to new thoughts about aging. I’d even go as far as to say that it's in a country’s national interest to do so, not only because populations are going to be happier if we all start fearing aging less, but there will be budget surpluses from reduced costs of health care.

We don’t need to create national time-warps for older people to spend time in; it would be much easier to change our ideas of what getting older means.

In my last blog post, I mentioned how uncertainty over the safety of hormone replacement therapy drove doctors (who probably have financial ties to HRT manufacturers) to declare that if a woman doesn’t take HRT, she’s more at risk of chronic disease. This is a myth that has been used to boost HRT sales at the expense of women’s health. The very idea that chronic disease is inevitable in our natural state generates a nocebo effect – which is the damaging opposite of a placebo effect.

Dan Buettner’s research on Blue Zones (areas of the world where people live on average significantly longer and healthier lives) identified attitudes to aging that stand in contrast to what we see in most Western countries. In Okinawa, Japan, for example, there is no word for retirement; in Sardinia, Italy, elders are celebrated; in Ikaria, Greece, about 80% of 80-year-olds are still engaged in growing their own food and working at their jobs. In Blue Zones, aging does not mean ill health and an end of usefulness, so it is taken lighter than in many anti-aging obsessed parts of the world. Positive societal beliefs about aging are good for our health.

I have noted that of the nine lifestyle factors that Buettner singled out as defining characteristics of Blue Zones (such as natural movement throughout the day, largely plant-based diets and a sense of community), headdresses are not mentioned – a shame indeed! However, it has occurred to me as I write this post that perhaps my ever-evolving silver mane is the headdress that I desire!

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