The life sciences have concentrated on the pathology of aging while ignoring the cultural aspects of health in the process of growing older. Growing older is a dynamic cognitive, biological and cultural coauthoring of health rather than a hopeless unfolding of progressive pathology. I propose that this fragmented concept of aging prevents discovering and understanding the cultural determinants that affect longevity.
These cultural milestones, or biocultural portals include middle age markers, retirement markers, perceived wisdom, sexuality, status in the community, transcendental beliefs, sense of empowerment vs. helplessness and any other biocultural phase in human development. I suggest that the biocultural portals define and trigger the transitions of life as well as influence how they are assimilated. For example, the markers for middle age established by a culture strongly influence the cognitive and biological expectations for the second half of life.
Aging is influenced by the established health, ethical, aesthetic and transcendental beliefs that are assimilated from the cultural history
Research in psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) has demonstrated how the immune, endocrine and nervous pathways maintain a constant and bi-directional communication with thoughts and emotions that affect health, illness and aging. But although we can strongly suggest from the research that thoughts affect biology and biology affects thought, PNI has failed to incorporate the influence that culture has on the mind-body communication. The evidence for the cultural components that interact with health, healing and aging remains isolated in the field of medical anthropology. In my theory of biocognition, I outline a cognitive, biological and cultural model to suggest how aging is influenced by the established health, ethical, aesthetic and transcendental beliefs that are assimilated from the cultural history.
While science identifies disease and pathological aging, culture defines illness and influences the process of how we grow older. In other words, disease is the physical evidence of pathology identified by the life sciences of the culture, and illness is the anthropological interpretations the culture makes of the pathology.
Ellen Langer, a social psychologist at Harvard, investigated the effects of contextual change on aging. She took a group of male subjects ages seventy five to eighty to a retreat and divided them into an experimental group that was to behave and speak as if they were living thirty years earlier and a control group that was instructed to only reminisce about thirty years earlier while maintaining their context in the present. In the area were the experimental group was housed; all the music, news, dress, speech and surroundings reflected the era they were instructed to recreate, whereas the control group lived in surroundings reflecting the present. Pre-post measures were taken of strength of handgrip, triceps skin fold, vision with and without glasses, visual memory and other physical and cognitive markers of â€œagingâ€. Several measures were repeated throughout the stay and the experiment was concluded after five days.
The pre-post measures showed improvement in all areas for the experimental group with no change in the control group. Remarkably, independent raters reported that subjects in the experimental group looked an average of three to five years younger from pre-post photographs after only five days of re-enactment, whereas no differences were noted for the control group.
A culture defines the biocultural portals as well as interprets the health and the quality of aging
I argue that growing older is the cognitive and biological accumulation of time, whereas aging is the consequences of our behavior contextualized within a cultural history. In other words, the passing of time is necessary but not sufficient to account for the cognitive and biological changes that transpire in the aging process. A culture defines the biocultural portals as well as interprets the health and the quality of aging. The biocultural portals are defined by the scientific, aesthetic and transcendental beliefs that are assimilated by the culture.
For example, while a 62 year old from an industrialized culture is engaged in behaviors conducive to achieving retirement, a Tarahumara Indian counterpart of the Chihuahua region of Mexico may be running up to 200 miles in a competitive racing sport called â€œkick ballâ€ that can last several days. The Tarahumaras, known for their longevity, believe that growing older makes them stronger and consequently better runners. Retirement is not one of their biocultural portals. Interestingly, since the Tarahumaras look forward to their expected physical gains from growing older, â€œmiddle age crisisâ€ is unknown to them and the usual degenerative pathology associated with aging is rare in their culture.
Considering that the life sciences of a culture are not immune to their cultural postulates, medical establishments share a collective reality assimilated from a cultural history that influences the concepts of aging as well as the diagnosis and prognosis of disease. If the assimilated cultural beliefs define aging as an inevitable deterioration of health, then the gerontology of that culture will study and treat the pathology of aging rather than the dynamics of health in the process of growing older. Cognition, biology and historical culture coemerge in a bioinformational field that constantly seeks contextual relevance and meaning. Cognition and biology occur simultaneously as a biocognition within a context of cultural history that can only be separated artificially and the separation can only yield partial information about the total experience.
Beliefs are assimilated from the cultural and personal history of the believer
Rather than mere thoughts separated from their biology, cultural beliefs are biocognitions that influence the health and aging process of the believer. Beliefs are assimilated from the cultural and personal history of the believer. The assimilated beliefs determine when the individual enters the biocultural portals (middle age etc.) and how the admonitions of these restrictive portals affect health and the aging process.
I propose that aging is the cognitive and biological effects of biocultural influences, whereas growing older is the cognitive and biological accumulation of time. The life sciences in general and gerontology in particular, must shift from focusing exclusively on the pathology of aging to studying the cultural influences that promote growing older in good health.
Dr. Martinez answers questions at the Caroline Myss Experts Form on his theory of Biocognitive Psychology and how it applies to relationships and health. For more information about his work, new psychologocial novel, and lectures in the UK and Ireland, please visit his website at www.Biocognitive.com or write him at ibp@Biocognitive.com.