Harvard Medical School Study: Aging Well

A podcast on this topic is also available.

What are the things that should be in place by age 50 that predict that you will be alive and well at age 80 and beyond?

A major study from Harvard Medical School attempted to answer this question by following three groups of people beginning in the year 1910 and continuing through the 20th century. The results are discussed in the book, “Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development” by George Valliant.

In a book that is well worth your reading, he points out the following important criteria for a healthy old age:

Most important, don’t smoke or if you do, quit before age 45. This is the single key predictor of early death. Smoking was ten times more frequent among the prematurely dead than the healthy well.

Learn to cope with the difficulties that life sends your way. If you can cope or not, this is the second most important predictor of a long and healthy life. Learn to turn lemon into lemonade.

Next came absence of alcohol abuse. Those who abused alcohol suffered from both physical and mental deterioration. They basically destroyed the support structure that would have helped them into a healthy old age.

Then there were three factors that had about the same power at age 50 to predict a healthy age 80. They were:

  • maintaining a good body weight and not becoming obese,
  • doing regular exercise
  • and having a stable marriage

Finally, for the group of men from the inner city, the more education they achieved, the longer they lived.

Some things that didn’t seem to predict a healthy old age were a surprise. For example, low blood cholesterol at age 50 is not predictive of longer life. Neither is the length of life of your parents or grandparents. I am sorry to have to tell you that your temperament as a child didn’t matter. Whether your parents had a stable marriage, died young, had a high IQ and their social class was of no importance to your future health.

I hope you can use these finding to make changes in your life. Good luck!

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