Aging Well

In 1938, Clark Heath and Arlie Bock, two medical doctors at Harvard began what was the longest study of adult development ever conducted. They asked 268 male Harvard sophomores to agree to participate in a study that would continue for their entire lives. Harvard did not admit women at the time so all participants were men. A later study was done with inner-city youth with both racial and gender diversity. The results were very similar.

At first, the study was influenced by the dominant belief at the time of biological determinism. The researchers wanted to see if one’s physical constitution, intellectual capacity, or personality were influential in a person’s physical and mental well-being as they grew older. As the participants aged, these factors seemed to have minimal impact.

As the study progressed, they found out that early childhood factors had only a limited impact. A caring early life had a strong impact on mental health and less of an impact on physical health. They also found that the longevity of parents had a weak, but positive impact on the length of the active lives of the participants. Childhood temperament and parent’s social class had no impact.

When the participants turned 59, the study found that alcohol abuse and smoking had negative impacts on virtually all measures of physical and mental well-being. The factors that were the most positive were exercise and a stable marriage.

As the participants reached retirement age, they found that only half of them had retired at age 65. Those who enjoyed working also enjoyed their retirement the most. They found four critical factors for happy retirements.

  • Development of social networks
  • Rediscovering how to play
  • Engagement in creative activity
  • Learning new things.

Remarkably 110 of the 268 participants were still living at age 87. Eighty-two percent of them remained intact mentally. Fifty percent of them had no disability and only 11% of them needed assistance in maintaining daily functioning.

What they found in this study which has now passed 80 years is that the key factor to aging well is the strength of a person’s relationship with others.  At the beginning of the study in 1938, the traits of strong personal traits such as empathy, caring, joy, hope, and happiness weren’t even considered in how the participants aged. But as the participants aged, they began to see the importance of the factors through the interviews they conducted.

And what this study tells all of us is that we can determine how well we age through how we live our lives.

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“Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young.” – Theodore Roosevelt

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