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.
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:
- Avoiding cigarettes
- Good adjustment or coping skills ("making lemonade out of lemons")
- Keeping a healthy weight
- Exercising regularly
- Maintaining strong social relationships (including a stable marriage)
- Pursuing education
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."
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."
Staying Mentally Active
Curiosity and creativity help transform older people into seemingly younger ones, says Vaillant, even if their joints ache and even once their days of enjoying free access to the office copying machine are a distant memory. Individuals who are always learning something new about the world, maintaining a playful spirit, and finding younger friends as they lose older ones also are making the most of the aging process.
The course of your own aging, argues Vaillant, is not written in stone, or even in your ancestry. Yes, he says, there may be genes that influence longevity, but because everyone has many good and many bad longevity genes, they tend to average out.
Even if your present lifestyle isn't what it should be, it's never too late to change. "It's a little like opening an IRA," says Vaillant. "The earlier you start one, the better, but no matter what your age, it's still worth doing." Everyone can make lifestyle changes that can move them in the direction of aging well.