The Article of the Month

by Robert Dilts.

NLP, Aging and Longevity

Living a long and vital life is a goal that most of us share. How precisely it can be achieved, however, has remained a largely unsolved puzzle. What is the key to longevity? How is it possible to maintain a youthful outlook and energy level as we advance in years? Just what are the 'secrets' of those exceptional elderly people who have mastered the challenges of life?

Studies on Longevity

One expression of the general interest in the subject of longevity is the large amount of statistical data that has been gathered about individuals and communities who reach unusually advanced ages. This information can be roughly divided into two categories: 1) data about communities that, as a group, reach an exceptionally high average age, and 2) data about individuals who reach unusually high ages compared to their peers in the same community.

An example of research in the first category (healthy communities) is the study of inhabitants of areas like the Hunza-region in Pakistan and Abkhasia in Russia. An example of the second type of research (healthy individuals) would be the study by George Gallup (1966) which investigated the habits and lifestyle of 402 Americans with an average age of 99 years.

The primary method for conducting statistical research on longevity involves contrasting long living individuals or communities with shorter living ones. As a result of this contrast statistically significant differences are determined. All relationships discovered in this way are correlational in nature. For instance: statistical research shows that moderate drinking correlates with high age, it doesn't prove that it actually causes high age. There is always the possibility of a third factor causing both moderate drinking and high age. Statistical research might establish a correlation between eating ice cream and death by drowning; the third factor in this case being hot weather. Secondly, this type of research concerns itself with averages. And as the saying goes: "You can easily drown in most rivers with an average depth of three feet."

The correlations that have been found this way, involve hereditary factors, behavioral and nutritional factors, personality factors and social factors. They can be summarized as follows:

Long living communities and individuals (on the average):

  1. Have parents and close relatives who also reach high ages and have a low incidence of coronary and hereditary diseases.
  2. Drink moderately (1 or 2 drinks a day) and don't smoke.
  3. Eat low fat, low sugar, low calorie diets and are not overweight.
  4. Exercise regularly but not excessively.
  5. Are flexible, relaxed, determined, cheerful, optimistic and intelligent (above average IQ).
  6. Avoid high risk situations.
  7. Have lasting relationships (friends and spouse).
  8. Have sex at least 1 or 2 times per week.
  9. Experience a moderate or slow change rate in their lives.

Even though statistical data doesn't prove any causal relationships, it provides a fairly clear ideal (and composite) picture of the lifestyle and personality of the active, healthy 90-year old. He or she is a happy, flexible person with a moderate, balanced lifestyle and harmonious social relationships. The next question then becomes: "How does one become such a person?" Since most people in our society already know that the described lifestyle is healthy, we know that a simple instruction like "Live happily and moderately" is not enough. We want to find the psychological processes which organize most of the statistically significant factors into a consistent life pattern that can be maintained in a relaxed and almost automatic fashion. We know roughly what a vital old person does, now we need to know how he does it.

Most of this information, however, is on the level of behavioral, environmental and general personality factors. Two crucial elements have been missing:

  1. an in depth analysis of the specific psychological processes involved, and
  2. a way to consolidate all of this data into an integrated system of life-patterns that can be easily attained by the average person.

In order to implement such a system, we need to explore the overall psychological factors required to organize and support the behavioral and environmental patterns. Cognitive strategies, beliefs, identity and 'spiritual' issues influence our will to live, our ability to cope with stress created by life-transitions and our ability to establish consistently healthy life-patterns. The importance of these deeper levels of organization is becoming more and more acknowledged by the medical profession. Dr. Peter Van Der Schaar, for instance, director of the International Biomedical Center in the Netherlands (a leading cardio-vascular surgeon for over 25 years and an orthomolecular specialist studying the biochemical aspects of life extension), proposes that all surgical and chemical knowledge is basically powerless to extend life, unless the patient is able to establish healthy overall life patterns.

Psychological Influences on Health and Aging

In addition to environmental and behavioral factors, psychological factors have also been shown to influence the health of aging people. Rodin (1986) cites a relationship between health and a sense of control in elderly people. Her studies showed that there were detrimental effects on the health of older people when their control of their activities was restricted; in contrast, interventions that enhanced options for control by nursing home patients promoted health.

Rodin also reported a relationship between physical health, sense of control and 'symptom labeling' in people of all ages. That is, a person's sense of control effected the way he or she experienced and labeled bodily sensations as symptoms relevant to health or illness and vice versa. In other words, people who have less of a sense of control are more apt to label a physical sensation as a 'symptom' of illness. Likewise the label given a particular physical sensation will effect the degree of control a person feels about it.

Certainly, in recent years, the body of data connecting health and attitude has grown significantly. There are numerous indications that the attitude of an elderly person towards life may influence their health in many ways. NLP has much to add to this exploration.

With the tools and processes provided by Neuro-Linguistic Programming, we can begin to build a pragmatic model of the psychological elements necessary for living a long and vital life. NLP has been applied already to the study of the how mental strategies and belief systems influence illness (Dilts; 1980, 1983, 1990). Strategy and belief techniques were developed to help people deal with illness more effectively, but these techniques have naturally been remedial in nature. The extension of life involves more than avoiding and overcoming illness - it requires strategies and beliefs that allow us to achieve positive overall life patterns and attitudes.

Modeling Longevity

NLP was originally developed through the modeling of the shared cognitive, linguistic and behavioral patterns of exceptional therapists such as Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson. The same modeling principles may be used to find the patterns of exceptional elderly people who have successfully mastered the aging process.

In May 1988 Robert Dilts and Jaap Hollander conducted an NLP modeling project to identify the strategies and beliefs of four vital and active elderly Dutch people. The project was conducted in a 2 1/2 day workshop-format, organized by the Institute for Eclectic Psychology (IEP) of Nijmegen in The Netherlands.

The workshop involved 35 advanced NLP practitioners who participated in the modeling design and assisted in the observation phase. The program started with an evening session during which specific modeling questions were generated and selected. Questions centered around issues such as life transitions, time lines and time perception, relationships to significant others, personal beliefs and values, strategies for coping with stress, illness and death, and attitudes about aging. The following is the list of questions that were asked during the interviews.

  1. Do you consider yourself to be an exceptional person?
  2. How do you know that you are vital? Where do you get your energy?
  3. What do you consider to be the most important transitions in your life?
  4. Which transitions were the most difficult? How did you cope with them? How do you cope with stress and problems in general?
  5. What has changed the most about you in your life? What has stayed the same?
  6. Have you left any parts of yourself or your life behind?
  7. Would you change anything about your life?
  8. How do you see your future? How do you relate to your past?
  9. Which do you believe is most important in order to live a long and vital life: Mind, Body, or Environment?
  10. Which has had the most important role in your life: Vision, Language or Feelings?
  11. In order to live a long and vital life which is of more importance: the specific things that you do to keep physically healthy or your general approach to life?
  12. What gives you your sense of self or identity? Do you feel that you have a mission or purpose in life?
  13. How were you influenced by your relationship with: Your parents? Your children? Your mate?
  14. Did you have other role models besides your parents?
  15. Who influenced you the most? Who are you the most grateful to?
  16. How have you dealt with the death of significant others? Are they still present in your life?
  17. How do you think about death in general?
  18. How do you deal with illness?
  19. What is the difference between age and youth?
  20. What is your attitude about the relationship between work and play?
  21. What are the most important values to have in life?
  22. What are your views on spiritual issues such as God and the afterlife, etc.?
  23. What is the role of emotions in your life?
  24. Is humor important for long life?
  25. What is your favorite joke?
  26. What question do you think is most important for us to answer in our own lives?

Conclusions of the Study

The most basic rules for effective and successful behavior according to Neuro-Linguistic Programming are:

  1. ave a fixed future goal.
  2. Have the sensory evidence necessary to accurately determine your progress toward the goal.
  3. Have a variable set of means to get to your goal and the behavioral flexibility to implement these choices.

Each of the models in the NLP study demonstrated a stubborn determination to achieve their own goals in life and the flexibility to 'roll with the punches' in order to get to those goals. Further, each goal had a concrete expression - whether it was in bicycle racing, writing books, church activities, or fashion and nature.

The models violated some of the statistical data from previous studies. For example, instead of long relationships, each had lost at least one spouse and some at an early age. They had all gone through some fairly difficult and traumatic changes such as the war, etc. Rather than the types of environment or events that surrounded our models, it was their approach to these experiences that seemed to be the 'difference that makes the difference'. This conclusion is supported by mounting medical evidence on the interplay between mind and body.

The results of the interviews may be summarized as follows.

Patterns For Life Extension

  1. Physiology
  2. Cognitive Strategies
  3. Meta-program Patterns
  4. Beliefs & Values
  5. Identity
  6. Spiritual

It is interesting to note that these results appear to match with the advice of another, more well known, vital elderly person. In an interview in USA Today on his 90th birthday, Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking (which has sold 15 million copies in 40 languages since 1952), gave the following tips for success, health and happiness:

Peale, who still travels and lectures regularly, stands as a good model for the potential effects of his own advice.

The common approach to life shared by the four models in the NLP study (and echoed by others such as Norman Vincent Peale) can be summarized by the following six steps:

Six Steps to a Long and Vital Life:

  1. Look at the bright side and have a good sense of humor.
  2. Keep moving but never leave a part of yourself behind.
  3. Stick to who you are and what you want.
  4. Value relationships and learn from different people.
  5. Move towards a positive future.
  6. Sing.

The essence to the models' message about how to live a long and vital life seems to be "Concentrate more on putting more life in your years than years on your life," and longevity will come as a natural result.

Practices That Promote Longevity

A key concern of NLP, of course, is how to put such information into practical applications once it has been gathered. According to NLP we must answer the question, "How do we install the beliefs and strategies of these vital elderly models into other people?"

Actually, numerous methods already exist for enhancing developing positive belief systems and attitudes. The repetition of positive verbal affirmations and the use of hypnotic suggestion have been used for years to install positive beliefs. In fact, one study showed that elderly nursing home residents who simply received positive hypnotic suggestions for health and long life, lived an average of six years longer than residents at the same institution who received no suggestions!

Visualization techniques also exist and have been shown to produce a significant impact on health - even in cases of severe illness such as cancer. Physical stress reduction and relaxations techniques are also available. Our modeling results indicate that there would be positive results in the area of life extension from learning to be more in touch with one's feelings and physiology.

Many of these methods, however, often tend to lack the level of technology necessary to build the specific skills and strategies required to actually carry through with the results of such verbal suggestions or visualizations. They are often more likely to be successful in helping to direct and organize individuals who already have coping strategies available to them.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming provides many such specific skills and techniques for developing new strategies and beliefs that involve all of the senses. NLP techniques such as Reframing, the New Behavior Generator, Well-Formedness Conditions for outcomes and Future Pacing provide specific tools to learn many of the important processes described by the models in our study. Advanced NLP skills such as Reimprinting, the Swish Pattern and Integration of Conflicting Beliefs can help people to overcome barriers to these beliefs and strategies should they need it. All of these step-by-step procedures are accessible through the books (Dilts, 1990) and seminars on NLP that are available worldwide, and are beyond the scope of this article.

As a result of the research described above, Dilts designed a specific technique/exercise (see Pattern of the Month) to help directly install both the beliefs and strategies of the vital elderly models. This process may be used to help develop positive beliefs and resources for almost any kind of issue.


Neuro-Linguistic Programming Vol. I; Dilts, Robert, et al; Meta Publications, Capitola, CA, 1980.
Applications of NLP; Dilts, Robert; Meta Publications, Capitola, CA, 1983.
Changing Belief Systems with NLP, Dilts, Robert; Meta Publications, Capitola, CA, 1990.
Beliefs: Pathways to Health and Well-Being, Dilts, Robert, et al; Metamorphous Press, Portland, OR, 1990.
Aging and Health: Effects of the Sense of Control; Rodin, Judith; Science Vol. 233, September 19, 1986, pp.1271-1276.
Coping, Stress, Stressors and Health Consequences; Vogel, Wolfgang; Neuropsychobiology 13: 1985, pp. 129-135.
Learned Histamine Release; Russell, M., Dark, K. et al; Science Vol. 225, August 17, 1984, pp. 733-734.
Psychoneuroimmunology, Ader, R. and Cohen, N.,Academic Press, New York, NY, 1981.
Pavlovian Conditioning of Rat Mucosal Mast Cell to Secrete Rat Mast Cell Protease II; MacQueen, G. et al; Science Vol. 243, January 6, 1989, pp. 83-85.
NLP and Life Extension: Modeling Longevity, Dilts, R. & Hollander, J., Dynamic Learning Publications, Ben Lomond, CA, 1992.

Also see the NLP Pattern of the Month or the Archives if you are interested in checking out NLP in more depth.
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