I want to recommend book to you, Aging Well, by George Vaillant. Vaillant is the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a longitudinal study that has followed a group of men in great detail from their time as Harvard undergraduates throughout their lives into old age. In this book he draws upon this study and two other longitudinal studies, one of gifted women, and one of inner city men, and finds that much of what we have heard about growing old well is not exactly true.
There are things that we have all heard should matter in terms of living healthy aging, but upon closer inspection are not really factors at all. The longevity of your ancestors, stress, the characteristics of your parents, childhood temperament such as shyness and anxiety, general ease in social relationships, and cholesterol level, all do certainly make an impact on the quality of your life and health earlier in life, in young adulthood into middle age. But later on these don’t seem to matter much.
As Vaillant said to me when I had an opportunity to speak with him a few weeks ago, “Childhood history is like the light and heat of the sun, the further you travel away from it, the less impact that light and heat has upon you”.
On the other hand, there are clear patterns of behavior that have been practiced by what Vaillant calls the “happy-well” of these studies. If you want to prepare yourself for a happy and healthy old age, do four or more of the following:
1) Don’t abuse alcohol. Alcoholism does the most damage of anything. People die young, live depressed, stay lonely, and stay stuck in harmful behavior patterns due to the chronic abuse of alcohol. Contrary to some thinking about this, it is not depression that causes alcoholism; it is alcoholism that causes depression. If this is you, please seek help now. Not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, not when you get your nerve up. Do it now. There are many fine treatment centers and programs available around the country, find one that suits you. Do it now.
2) Don’t smoke, or at least stop by about age 45. This one should be obvious.
3) Have a stable marriage.
4) Keep at a healthy weight – not a perfect weight, just a healthy weight. Check with your doctor to see what that would be for you.
5) Get some exercise. You don’t have to be Jack LaLane here, just regular walking or other such physical activity. Again, ask your doctor.
6) Develop an adaptive coping style. As Vaillant says it, this, “refers to our capacity to turn lemons into lemonade, and not to turn molehills into mountains.” This involves a quality of emotional maturity, and includes many of the practices that I talk about in my columns. Don’t just follow your impulses, think about them first; develop a sense of humor, particularly regarding yourself; develop more empathy and less self-absorption; practice gratitude and forgiveness, focus on strengths, not weaknesses, in yourself and those around you.
7) Get more education. A college education is correlated with longevity, and the closer you are to this, the better. The benefits of more education may have a lot to do with how you think about and relate to the other six above.
These are the lessons of hundreds of people who have lived well and poorly, loved and lonely, satisfied and disappointed, in good and poor health, most of them well into old age. As Vaillant says, “Old age is like a minefield; if you see footprints leading to the other side, step in them.”