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 Nancy Levitt's mother was first diagnosed with dementia 14 years ago at age 78, the doctor told her she could safely drive to familiar places. But Levitt, 61, who volunteers at UCLA's Center on Aging in Los Angeles, was still nervous. Unexplained nicks and dents started appearing on her mother's car. She forgot where she parked. Levitt tried to discuss driving safety with her mother, but she angrily denied there was a problem. Then, she would forget their talks about driving altogether.
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
Good adjustment or coping skills ("making lemonade out of lemons")
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."
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."