The Secrets of Aging Well
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."