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50+: Live Better, Longer

The Secrets of Aging Well

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You've Gotta Have Friends

Aging successfully, according to Vaillant, is something like being tickled -- it's best achieved with another person. Whether your social connections are with a spouse, offspring, siblings, bridge partners, and/or fellow churchgoers, they're crucial to good health while growing older.

Richard Lucky, one of the so-called "happy-well" participants in the Harvard study, was always surrounded by people, whether it was having friends over for dinner or interacting with his children and grandchildren. In his 70s, he sailed with his wife from San Francisco to Bali, and he had begun writing a book about the Civil War. He told the Harvard researchers, "I am living in the present -- enjoying life and good health while it lasts."

Other studies have confirmed the health-promoting power of social connections. At the UCLA School of Medicine's geriatrics division, Teresa Seeman, PhD, evaluated adults in their 70s over a seven-year period. She found that those with satisfying social relationships remained more mentally alert over the course of the study, with less age-related mental decline than people who were more isolated.

No one is certain exactly how a social network may help you stay healthy, although some research has shown that men and women who live alone tend to eat less well, which could jeopardize their physical and mental well-being. People with social connections also may have stronger disease-fighting immune systems.

"We're still struggling to understand it," says Vaillant. "People who use alcohol or are depressed are less likely to have social support, and thus personal relationships are an indicator that you're leading the rest of your life pretty well."

At RAND, a policy research "think tank" in Santa Monica, behavioral scientist Joan Tucker, PhD, says that having people in your life can make you feel loved and cared for, which can enhance your mental well-being. At the same time, a spouse or close friend can also remind you to go for walks or take your medication, which can have benefits for your physical health as well.

"Having someone prod you to get out and exercise might not make you feel loved in the short run - in fact, it may be quite irritating," says Tucker. "But it can be very effective in getting people to change their behaviors in positive ways."

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