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.
Madonna and Michelle Obama seem to have little in common. But together, they have awakened American women of a certain age to the allure of tight, toned arms. They've sent the message that those arms and toned, taut bodies may be within reach for other 40-somethings and older.
That message has been helped along by a legion of other celebrities who have passed their 40th birthday, yet remain virtually flab-free. The list includes Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Barkin, and Mary Tyler Moore.
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
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
Good adjustment or coping skills ("making lemonade out of
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."