How to think yourself into living longer: DR MICHAEL MOSLEY guide to transforming yourself from a pessimist to an optimist and adding SEVEN years to your lifespan as a result
Dr Michael Mosley, pictured with his GP wife Clare, said everyone’s brain can be manipulated to have a transformative effect on our bodies
We’ve all, at some point or another, put our faith in a new-fangled lotion, potion or lifestyle regime that promises to turn back the body clock. After all, anti-ageing is big business – a global industry said to be worth about £70 billion a year.
Biotech firm Juvenescence, for example, recently ploughed £130 million into the ultimate biological challenge – prolonging life for at least 50 years.
Its long-term goal is to develop drugs and therapies to help us have healthier and longer lifespans. It’s tremendously ambitious but even if it succeeds, it probably won’t benefit my generation or even my children’s. But the good news is there is a great deal we can all do right now to increase our chances of living longer – beyond the tried-and-tested lifestyle advice of exercising regularly, not smoking, and not eating or drinking too much.
The secret lies within the 3 lb bundle of fibres that sit inside your skull. Far from giving us a pre-programmed lifespan, our brains can actually be profoundly manipulated to have a transformative effect on our bodies and our health. Astoundingly, all it takes are some simple exercises to alter your patterns of thinking.
Here, I showcase the scientific evidence that shifting your psychological state can radically extend the time you have left, and outline the easy mental exercises that can benefit your brain and body.
The key to staying young? As trite as it sounds, it really is all in the mind.
Optimism will add years to your life
Optimism has long been known to protect against a host of age-related conditions. A recent Harvard University study of more than 70,000 people found a sunny outlook helps people live up to 15 per cent longer than pessimists.
It came as bad news for me, a self-confessed Eeyore. My naturally pessimistic disposition means I’ve always taken a special interest in the health-boosting effects I may be missing out on.
One study that stands out began in 1975 and involved more than 1,000 people aged over 50 who were followed for several decades.
The results revealed that those most optimistic about the future lived, on average, about seven-and-a-half years longer than those who were more pessimistic.
Intriguingly, mental attitude was more important for longevity than almost any other factor.
To put this in context, curing cancer adds only about four years to average life expectancy.
I witnessed these transformative effects a few years ago while making a film. I’d always wanted to understand why I was so much more pessimistic than my wife or children. I’d had a happy childhood, and am lucky enough to have a lovely family and an interesting job that I love. But at some point in my life, I stopped believing that tomorrow would be a better day, and began to think it probably wouldn’t.
Dr Mosley, pictured, said improving his outlook on life could add seven years to his lifespan
So I decided to explore the science of personality and attempt to make myself more optimistic.
But not in a superficial, ‘pull- yourself-together’ type of way – rather, this was about rewiring my brain in a way that was both measurable and scientific.
Naturally, I expected to fail. But I practised some mental exercises recommended by neurologists from Oxford University and I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome.
When I returned for a second round of tests months later, not only did I feel far less gloomy, my brain activity showed remarkable changes too. It was exhibiting patterns associated with optimism. I’ve detailed some of the exercises I now swear by below, so you can reap the benefits too.
But first of all, to appreciate the true impact of pessimism on our health, we must understand why it exists in the first place.
A gloomy outlook could be deadly
While it might not be beneficial to modern humans, pessimism is deep-rooted in our biology. Like any other animal, when our primate ancestors were in the wild and at risk from predators, being wary brought clear survival advantages.
But they still needed to be a bit optimistic or else they would never have headed out into the unknown in search of a mate or food.
In the modern world, however, being constantly on the lookout for things that could possibly go wrong is more likely to lead to anxiety, insomnia and mental health problems.
But does being cheery lengthen your life? That’s a pretty remarkable claim. Scientists aren’t yet sure exactly why a sunny disposition increases lifespan but research shows it is probably to do with how we cope with stress – a known risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Stress also compromises our immune system, dampening the body’s ability to cope with infections.
In the modern world, however, being constantly on the lookout for things that could possibly go wrong is more likely to lead to anxiety, insomnia and mental health problems
When the brain registers stress, it sends out signals that activate the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. A flurry of hormones is released, preparing the body to attack or run away – blood pressure rockets and heart rate increases.
Blood is directed away from the brain, immune and digestive systems and towards the big muscle groups instead.
When we’re locked in a chronic state of stress, arteries get worn down from the heart constantly beating harder and faster, putting us at risk of heart disease.
Studies show this also increases the risk of serious infections and digestive conditions, due to the diversion of blood supply.
One large study from Harvard found pessimists were more likely than optimists to die from cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases and infections.
So a positive mental attitude really is worth adopting. But, as I learnt when I had my brain scanned, this is far easier for some than it is for others.
Sad faces that told a worrying story
The esteemed pessimism expert I visited was Elaine Fox, a professor of psychology at Oxford University and author of the book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain.
For years, Elaine, who is also a neuroscientist, has studied how health, wealth and wellbeing are shaped by how we view the world, and whether differences in outlook relate to specific patterns of brain activity. In her lab, she asked me to don a cap fitted with numerous electroencephalographic (EEG) leads, which measure electrical activity in the brain.
Exercise to banish negative thoughts
Elaine, the neuroscientist from Oxford who studied the effect of pessimism on my brain, introduced me to mindfulness. There are several ways to practise this form of meditation – which aims to train the mind to be non-judgmental about passing, negative thoughts. I use a guided meditation smartphone app called Headspace.
First thing in the morning, I sit in a quiet place for 20 minutes and try to focus on physical sensations, such as my breath or the weight of my body on the chair. I count inhalations and exhalations, allowing thoughts to drift in and out without judging them.
It sounds simple but it is surprisingly hard not to fall back into ruminations.
‘We’re going to see whether your brain naturally tunes in to positive stuff or negative stuff,’ Elaine explained.
For the first part of the test, electrical activity was measured on two sides of my brain while I was resting. This was to measure something called cerebral asymmetry.
It relates to the well-known fact that people who are prone to pessimism tend to have greater activity on the right side of their frontal cortex than the left.
The same pattern is seen in infants who are anxious and cry a lot.
So what about me?
My results were concerning – I had three times more activity in my right frontal cortex than in my left side.
Then I did another test where either happy or sad faces flashed up on a computer screen, as well as dots displayed behind them.
I was asked to focus on the dots only and press a button as soon as they appeared.
The point of the exercise was to see if my brain’s response time was influenced by seeing either an angry or a happy face.
In true pessimist form, my brain subconsciously reacted far more rapidly to angry faces. So, it was concluded, I am indeed a biological pessimist. Great.
But all was not lost – Elaine then showed me various forms of mental training to recalibrate my brain.
Practising mindfulness and something called cognitive bias modification – training the brain to look for positive aspects in life – could, she said, actually change my brain’s electrical activity.
Practising mindfulness and something called cognitive bias modification – training the brain to look for positive aspects in life – could change the brain’s electrical activity
I did both most nights for seven weeks and I did feel a little more optimistic. But did it alter my brain?
Elaine measured my cerebral asymmetry and, astonishingly, there was far less difference in activity between the right frontal cortex of my brain and the left.
Next I repeated the test with the faces to see if my reaction times had changed.
I was still too quick to react to the angry faces but much less so than the first time round. Overall, my score was bang on average – a marked improvement from my previous result.
Clearly, I am never going to be a raging optimist but with the help of pioneering psychologists, I now know can teach myself to become at least moderately positive.
And for that, I give thanks.
Make a list of your day’s great events
One easy way to force yourself to focus on the positive is to write down three brilliant things that happened that day.
I do this every evening.
I am blessed to have a wonderfully optimistic wife, so she often features in my list.
It doesn’t have to be something seismic – perhaps someone at work congratulated you on an achievement, or maybe you saw a particularly beautiful bird.
If you force yourself to pick out nuggets of positivity, after a while, it will begin to come naturally.
Put a positive spin on bad situations
We’ve all automatically assumed a friend or colleague hates us, simply because they didn’t telephone or email us back.
But continually jumping to the worst conclusions could be detrimental to our health.
Instead, force yourself to put a positive spin on the situation. Think: ‘They are probably very busy. I must make more effort with friends and colleagues that I enjoy spending time with.’
Use a computer to train your brain
Another activity that helped my brain adopt a more optimistic nature was a computerised exercise called cognitive bias modification. Psychologists often use it to combat the negative thinking patterns that can lead to anxiety. I looked at a screen that displayed 15 blank or angry faces and one smiley face, flashing intermittently, for ten minutes. My task was to spot the smiley face and click on it.
This supposedly trains the brain to search for positive images – a skill that can be generalised to everyday life.
I haven’t yet found a phone app that does this, but you could quite easily replicate it using printout images of smiley and snarly faces.
Good friends add years to your life
One powerful predictor of overall positivity, as well as longevity, is the strength and quality of your relationships. If you want proof, look to the longest human study in recent history.
In the 1940s, scientists at Harvard University followed more than 700 teenage boys throughout their lives to see what impact wealth and education had on life expectancy.
Some were rich and privileged, others were from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods.
Every two years they asked the men questions about their health and their overall lives, including about their mental and emotional wellbeing.
It wasn’t cholesterol levels, education or wealth that predicted whether or not they made it to a happy, healthy 80 years old.
Rather, it was how satisfied they were in their relationships around the age of 50.
It was those who had strong connections with their family, friends and community who were less likely to succumb to diseases, had better mental health and stayed sharper.
Being lonely, on the other hand, was toxic for mental health and led to more rapid cognitive decline.
And although having a committed, loving partner did seem to be protective, the director of the study – psychiatrist Dr Robert Waldinger – noted that it needn’t be romantic.
Anyone – be it a close friend or relative who the men could count on in times of need – provided health-boosting benefits.
Dr Waldinger says this is especially important when approaching retirement age, when work friends may fall by the wayside.
Take up singing, dancing, volunteering or join a social club.
I am now a loyal member of a men’s reading group, which I really treasure.
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