If fighting off Father Time by deflating your cholesterol count and stress levels is tucked somewhere in the back of your mind, maybe you should keep it there. With a longer, healthier life as a goal, perhaps you should be turning more of your attention to making friends, waging war on your waistline, and extinguishing your cigarettes for good.
That is some of the wisdom emerging from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest, most comprehensive examination of aging ever conducted. Since the 1930s, researchers have studied more than 800 men and women, following them from adolescence into old age, and seeking clues to the behaviors that translate into happy and healthy longevity.
When dance instructor Joan Price of Sebastopol, Calif., met the love of her life in her line dancing class at the age of 57, she was already wise to the steps and spins of modern dating, especially when it came to sex. She had been dating for years following her divorce, mostly short-term relationships, and was always careful to use condoms in bed.
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The results haven't always been what even the investigators themselves anticipated. "I had expected that the longevity of your parents, the quality of your childhood, and your cholesterol levels would be very influential," says psychiatrist George Vaillant, MD, director of the Harvard study and senior physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "So I was very surprised that these particular variables weren't more important than they were."
Surprisingly, stressful events didn't predict future health, either. "Some people had a lot of stress, but aged very well," says Vaillant. "But how you deal with that stress does matter quite a bit."
In fact, rather than obsessing about your cholesterol, or even the genetic hand you were dealt, the Harvard study found that you'd be better off becoming preoccupied with the following factors that turned out to be most predictive of whether you'd move successfully through middle age and into your 80s:
Good adjustment or coping skills ("making lemonade out of lemons")
Maintaining strong social relationships (including a stable marriage)
Woody Allen once observed that no one gets out of this world alive, but for as long as we're here, says Vaillant, we might as well stay as healthy and happy as possible. Vaillant, whose book Aging Well describes the decades-long Harvard study, says that it's "astonishing how many of the ingredients that predict longevity are within your control."