Excerpt from Chapter Four
THE PLACEBO EFFECT IN THE BODY
On a crisp September day in 1981, a group of eight men in their 70s and 80s climbed into a few vans headed two hours north of Boston to a monastery in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The men were about to take part in a five-day retreat where they were asked to pretend that they were young again—or at least 22 years younger than they were at the time. The retreat was organized by a team of researchers, headed by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, Ph.D., who would take another group of eight elderly men to the same place the following week. The men in the second group, the control group, were asked to actively reminisce about being 22 years younger but not to pretend that they weren’t their current age.
When the first group of men arrived at the monastery, they found themselves surrounded by all sorts of environmental cues to help them re-create an earlier age. They flipped through old issues of Life and the Saturday Evening Post, they watched movies and television shows popular in 1959, and they listened to recordings of Perry Como and Nat King Cole on the radio. They also talked about “current” events, such as Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba, Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United States, and even the feats of baseball star Mickey Mantle and boxing great Floyd Patterson. All of these elements were cleverly designed to help the men imagine that they were really 22 years younger again.
After each five-day retreat, the researchers took several measurements and compared them to those they’d taken before the start of the study. The bodies of the men from both groups were physiologically younger, structurally as well as functionally, although those in the first study group (who pretended they were younger) improved significantly more than the control group, who’d merely reminisced.
The researchers discovered improvements in height, weight, and gait. The men grew taller as their posture straightened, and their joints became more flexible and their fingers lengthened as their arthritis diminished. Their eyesight and hearing got better. Their grip strength improved. Their memory sharpened, and they scored better on tests of mental cognition (with the first group improving their score by 63 percent compared to 44 percent for the control group). The men literally became younger in those five days, right in front of the researchers’ eyes. Langer reported, “At the end of the study, I was playing football—touch, but still football—with these men, some of whom gave up their canes.”
How did that happen? Clearly, the men were able to turn on the circuits in their brains that reminded them of who they had been 22 years ago, and then their body chemistry somehow magically responded. They didn’t just feel younger; they physically became younger, as evidenced by measurement after measurement. The change wasn’t just in their minds; it was in their bodies.
But what happened in their bodies to produce such striking physical transformations? What could be responsible for all of these measurable changes in physical structure and function? The answer is their genes—which aren’t as immutable as you might think. So let’s take some time to look at what exactly genes are and how they operate.
Imagine a ladder or a zipper twisted into a spiral, and you’ll have a pretty good picture of what deoxyribonucleic acid (better known as DNA) looks like. Stored in the nucleus of every living cell in our bodies, DNA contains the raw information, or instructions, that makes us who and what we are (although as we’ll soon see, those instructions are not an unchangeable blueprint that our cells must follow for our entire lives). Each half of that DNA zipper contains corresponding nucleic acids that, together, are called base pairs, numbering about three billion per cell. Groups of long sequences of these nucleic acids are called genes.
Genes are unique little structures. If you were to take the DNA out of the nucleus of just one cell in your body and stretch it out from end to end, it would be six feet long. If you took all the DNA out of your entire body and stretched it out from end to end, it would go to the sun and back 150 times.3 But if you took all the DNA out of the almost seven billion people on the planet and scrunched it together, it would fit in a space as small as a grain of rice.
Our DNA uses the instructions imprinted within its individual sequences to produce proteins. The word protein is derived from the Greek protas, meaning “of primary importance.” Proteins are the raw materials our bodies use to construct not only coherent three-dimensional structures (our physical anatomy), but also the intricate functions and complex interactions that make up our physiology. Our bodies are, in fact, protein-producing machines. Muscle cells make actin and myosin; skin cells make collagen and elastin; immune cells make antibodies; thyroid cells make thyroxine; certain eye cells make keratin; bone-marrow cells make hemoglobin; and pancreatic cells make enzymes like protease, lipase, and amylase.
All of the elements that these cells manufacture are proteins. Proteins control our immune system, digest our food, heal our wounds, catalyze chemical reactions, support the structural integrity of our bodies, provide elegant molecules to communicate between cells, and much more. In short, proteins are the expression of life (and the health of our bodies).