Good Health is Largely in Your Own Hands
George Vaillant talks about successful aging. He says the we get better with time, not worse, and if you are healthy at 90, life can be wonderful.
What goes right in your life, is in the end far more important than the things that go wrong. For instance loving parents, or any experience of love early in your life is a blessing that keeps on giving, but in it's absence, love can be discovered later. What looks like trouble may cause a great deal of pain, but it can also be the seat of healing and rejuvenation.
At a time when many people around the world are living into their tenth decade, the longest longitudinal study of human development ever undertaken offers some welcome news for the new old age: our lives continue to evolve in our later years, and often become more fulfilling than before.
Begun in 1938, the Grant Study of Adult Development charted the physical and emotional health of over 260 men, starting with their undergraduate days. The now-classic "Adaptation to Life" reported on the men's lives up to age 55 and helped us understand adult maturation. In his new book "Triumphs of Experience" George Vaillant follows the men into their nineties, documenting for the first time what it is like to flourish far beyond conventional retirement.
Independently, in 1939 the Glueck Study, of 456 young inner city men from Bostan began. Later these two studies were merged to become the Harvard Study of Adult Development.
Reporting on all aspects of male life, including relationships, politics and religion, coping strategies, and alcohol use (its abuse being by far the greatest disrupter of health and happiness for the studies subjects), Triumphs of Experience shares a number of surprising findings. For example, the people who do well in old age did not necessarily do so well in midlife, and vice versa. While the study confirms that recovery from a lousy childhood is possible, memories of a happy childhood are a lifelong source of strength.
Life is a journey, not a footrace. It's foolish to think that butterflies are better than caterpillars. In you life there is a proper time to be a caterpillar, and to do that well. There is also a time to become a butterfly, and you should have the courage to take it.
We are all shaped and enriched and sustained by the people around us, especially by family and relationships. Loyalty to each other can hide the reality of a marriage from outsiders. The adverse effect of alcohol on marriages was hidden for 68 years. These men filled in questionnaires every two years. They were privately interviewed every 10 years. Excessive drinking within the family was hidden.
The two most highly respected text-books on marriage in the USA, "Psychological Factors and Marital Happiness" (1938), and "What Predicts Divorce" (1994) do not identify alcoholism as a likely cause of divorce. People lie about their drinking.
Marriages bring much more contentment after age 70, and physical aging after 80 is determined less by heredity than by habits formed prior to age 50. The credit for growing old with grace and vitality, it seems, owes more to ourselves and the choices we make, than to our stellar genetic makeup.
By today's standard these men had little training and very poor knowledge about sexual matters. In the early years they were not asked about anything sexual. A questionnaire that asked about masturbation, and pre-marital sex had a poor return rate. Fear of sex was a powerful predictor of both poor mental health and unsatisfactory marriages.
It was 10 years before they were asked if they had girlfriend's or wives. They were never asked about the quality of the relationship, or the fidelity of the partners. One man kept his homosexuality a secret until he was 90.
As the men aged they began to talk about extramarital affairs, and tax evasion. They would talk about their own drinking, but never about the drinking their wives did.
There are higher rungs than we previously understood, on the health ladder. To be more healthy, I don't need to go back to extreme exercise and marathon running. By careful attention to diet, moderate exercise, purposeful work, and active social engagement, we can live better lives, higher up the health ladder. Importantly, the higher rungs may not visible to you based on your present awareness!
Talk to people. I'm surprised what depth of knowledge many people proclaim to have. A lot of what they say, isn't scientifically "correct", but it might still contain a gem of real wisdom. Try some of the things they suggest. Burton writes, "The question always is, what works? How do you find out the answer? By trying and observing!" Can I repeat, "By keeping good written and photographic records about what you tried and what happened."
Unlearning the idea that saturated fats are bad will be difficult. It's not true, and there is much old science and quite a bit of recent science that confirms that position. The fat you eat doesn't make you fat, but it does make you feel full, it does help stop you from snacking all the time, it does provide some essential fatty acids and fat soluble vitamins and minerals that you can get no other way.
John S Veitch
The Network Ambassador