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Landmark Study Uncovers Surprising Guideposts to Aging Well


An individual’s lifestyle choices may play a greater role than genetics, wealth, race, or other factors in determining how happy people are in later life. Or, the secret to a long and happy life does not lie as much in our stars as in ourselves.

Led by George Vaillant, the Harvard Study of Adult Development tracked the lives of 824 individuals for more than five decades. Now the author has reported his surprising conclusion in his provocative and groundbreaking book, Aging Well.

The study included three cohorts: 368 socially advantaged graduates born about 1920, 456 socially disadvantaged Inner City men born around 1930, and 90 middle-class, intellectually gifted women born about 1910. Participants were interviewed at five-year intervals throughout the study.

Among the study findings:

It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us along the way that facilitate enjoyable old age.
What goes right in childhood predicts the future far better than what goes wrong.
In old age it is all right to be ill as long as you do not feel sick.
Mature defenses or the capacity to turn lemons into lemonade and not to turn molehills into mountains are essential to aging well.
The concept of generativity (giving back) underpins successful aging.
Human beings outgrow and recover from restrictive environments. In the absence of physical illness, mental health improves into the 7th decade.
In the aging game, emotional riches trump financial savings.
A good marriage at age 50 predicted positive aging at 80. But low cholesterol levels at age 50 did not.
Aging well is facilitated by a capacity for gratitude.
Gusto for learning in late life is highly correlated with psychological health.
Living successfully means understanding death is part of the journey.
There are many paths to aging well and no one way to do it right, according to the author. Vaillant is tentative when asked, “What makes the difference between aging well and not aging well?” He suspects the “Wow!” factor. “The celebrant sense is an important component in the whole adaptive process,” he said.