Surprisingly, many uncontrollable early life factors in the Harvard study were not as important for successful aging as those that individuals could control themselves. These included social class of the parents, having a close-knit family while growing up, having ancestors who lived a long time, childhood temperament, and physical health at age 50.
“To many, the conclusions of the study are puzzling,” says study author George E. Vaillant, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass. “How can the care we take of ourselves be so important, and the longevity of our ancestors and our childhood environment be so unimportant to health after 70?”
“The answer is that in youth a Mercedes runs better than a Chevrolet. But in old age, maintenance is everything,” says Vaillant, author of Aging Well, which will be published in fall 2001. While the Harvard study dealt exclusively with men, his new book discusses applications of these findings to women’s lives.
By comparing 268 Harvard sophomores with 456 socially disadvantaged inner-city teens, Vaillant’s study also showed that education, but not money or social prestige, benefited health in later years.
The Learning Curve
“Never stop learning — you can add to your education every day of your life,” says Bass, who started out “very poor” on an Alabama farm. “We walked around barefoot in the straw, drove tractors and took care of livestock. I decided pretty early that it wasn’t the kind of life I wanted to lead.”
True to his dreams, Bass joined the Army in 1945 with only a high school diploma, but attended night school while enlisted for nine years. Continuing his education as he advanced in the commissioned ranks, he eventually got his MBA from George Washington University in 1973 and retired as a Colonel after 38 years of service.
The Harvard researchers found that the health of the inner-city men declined more rapidly than did that of the Harvard men, as their health status at age 65 matched the Harvard men at age 75. However, the health of 25 inner-city men who later obtained a college education was as stable as those who entered the study as Harvard sophomores.
When the researchers reviewed other long-term studies of health in late life, they found that the two most important predictors of successful aging were a high level of education and active involvement in an extended family.
“I think our results are reassuring to those people in middle age who are looking for ways to age gracefully,” says study coauthor Kenneth J. Mukamal, M.D., an instructor in medicine at Harvard University and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Mass. “Aging connotes more than decline — it represents change and even development.”
Thanks to modern medicine, the number of years spent in active retirement has increased tenfold in the last 100 years. In 1990, there were 4 million Americans over age 85, and there will be 40 million by 2040. Promoting good health is therefore just as important as identifying and treating disease.
“By not smoking, not abusing alcohol, working on a strong marriage, developing mature coping mechanisms, getting exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and getting an education, individuals can maximize their chances of healthy and happy older age, regardless of the circumstances of their upbringing,” Mukamal says.
Because depression can sabotage both mental and physical health, Mukamal encourages depressed individuals of all ages to seek professional help for this highly treatable condition.
“Everyone has to recognize their limitations, but I’m trying to do all I can that is feasible, given my age,” Bass says. “I hope to carry on like this as long as I can in the future.”
Thanks to this study, we now have a prescription for improving the quality as well as the quantity of our golden years. When jazz musician Eubie Blake reached his 100th birthday, he summed it up like this: “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”
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