It’s Never Too Late for Good Choices

What’s the best predictor of late-life happiness?  The answers may surprise you!

“We used to think that if you had relatives who lived to a ripe old age, that was the best predictor” of a long life, said Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “It turns out that the lifestyle choices people make in midlife are a more important predictor of how long you live.”

Between 1939 and 1944, Harvard University Health Services began the Grant Study by performing “exhaustive physical examinations” on 268 Harvard students.  Those students have participated in regular follow ups since then.

Harvard Law Professor Sheldon Glueck recruited 456 males from inner-city Boston neighborhoods between 1940 and 1945 to use as control subjects for a juvenile delinquency study.  In the 1970s, these men were added to the original Harvard study group.

Over the years subjects have answered questionnaires, allowed access to their medical records, and participated in in-depth interviews.  As technology progressed, neuroimaging scans, and blood work were added.  As marriage was a factor observed, their wives have also begun to participate in the study.  Together, this work known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development, is one of the longest running research studies of normal adult development.

Today, only 68 of the original Harvard participants are still alive with most of the remaining individuals being in their early 90s.  Around 120 of the Boston group remain, with most of them in their early to mid-80s.  A variety of topics have been studied over the years including: the effects of World War II combat, substance abuse, childhood trauma, education, and other factors.

So what have they learned over the last 7 decades?  Some of the findings seem obvious, while others may be surprising.  Here are a few tidbits:

  • Having a difficult childhood has serious effects on young adulthood, but less on later age.
  • Those with a difficult childhood who sought out jobs as kids did better than their peers who didn’t.
  • Education – especially college – is a greater predictor of lifetime success than money or social status.
  • A person’s situation at age 50 is a better indicator of health and happiness at age 70 than their situation earlier in life.
  • The quality of vacations younger in life — a measure of the ability to play — is a better indicator of late-life happiness than income.
  • Lifestyle choices in mid-life are more important predictors of longevity than relatives who lived a long life.
  • Alcohol has a negative effect on both marital and lifetime success.
  • Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous work better than other interventions.
  • Adult development does not stop at age 50 – it merely slows down.
  • Healthy, stable marriage is vital to late-life happiness and underlines the importance of having mature coping mechanisms for the adversity sure to come.
  • While the main task for younger couples is managing conflicts, the main task for older couples is mutual support.
  • Neural imaging shows that older adults with positive outlooks process emotional information differently from their peers with more negative views.

Most studies of this nature fade after 10 years or so, making this 74-year study unique.   As the study continues and as technology progresses, much more may be learned from these individuals.  Researchers are trying to digitize the 50 filing cabinets of data to make it easier to search and compile.  Researchers are also seeking funding to add new genetic techniques as well as to continue the study by adding children and grandchildren of the original subjects.

In the meantime, take the initiative to continue your education or try that new job.  Work to keep your marriage strong with good conflict resolution skills.  Learn to play and have down time.  Of course, strive to live a healthy lifestyle by avoiding smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, participating in exercise and eating a healthy diet.


Source: Decoding keys to a healthy life. Alvin Powell, Harvard Staff Writer in Harvard Gazette.