Not only are Americans living
longer, but they’re also enjoying better health in old age, according to a new Harvard study. The researchers analyzed data from nearly 90,000 Medicare
beneficiaries, collected over an 18-year period.
the exception of the year or two just before death, people are healthier than
they used to be," study author David Cutler, PhD, reported in a statement. "Effectively, the
period of time in which we're in poor health is being compressed until just
before the end of life.”
study linked participants’ responses to surveys about how well they were able
to take care of themselves to their Medicare records. This enabled the team to work
backwards from the date of participants’ deaths and calculate how healthy they
were in prior years, based on such criteria as their ability to cook, clean,
walk, and manage their money.
we used to see people who are very, very sick for the final six or seven years
of their life, that's now far less common,” adds Cutler. “People are living to
older ages and we are adding healthy years, not debilitated ones."
75-Year Study Reveals Surprising
Keys to Longevity and Happiness
ongoing Harvard study, launched in 1938, has been following 268 Harvard
students who were sophomores at the start of the study and 456 inner-city
Boston men of similar age over their lifetimes, using questionnaires,
face-to-face interviews, physical exams, and family histories to evaluate their
health and emotional well-being. Nearly
200 of the participants, now in their 80s and 90s, are still alive.
called the Harvard Grant Study—and later renamed the Study of Adult
the research has yielded a variety of insights about longevity and happiness.
The findings include these:
Having great vacations as
a kid leads to happiness in old age. The study reported that enjoyable vacations
early in life—considered a measure of the ability to play—was a stronger predictor
of late-life bliss than income.
Love and relationships
are all that matters. Money, good health and a successful career don’t bring joy and
fulfillment unless the person also has supportive, loving relationships. George
Vaillant, MD, the psychiatrist who headed the study from 1972 to 2004 and author
of Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the
Harvard Grant Study, wrote that there are two pillars of happiness: "One
is love," he says. "The other is finding a way of coping with life
that does not push love away."
Healthy lifestyle choices
trump genes in predicting longevity. Scientists used to think that long-lived
relatives were the best indicator of who would live to a ripe, old age, but
healthy habits in middle age—such as exercising, keeping weight down, and not
smoking—turned out to far more important to longevity than family history. In
other words, DNA doesn’t have to be destiny.
A rough childhood doesn’t
have to be a lifelong barrier to happiness. The study found that the effects of
growing up in adverse circumstances fade over time. For example, Godfrey Minot
Camille had one of the bleakest childhoods of any of the participants and was
so depressed at the start of the study that he was given the lowest rating for
future stability, reports Dr. Vaillant. At one point, Camille tried to kill himself,
but ultimately ended one of the happiest participants in later life. The
turning point came when Camille, then 35, was hospitalized with tuberculosis.
The care he received sparked remarkable physical and emotional healing. Already
trained as a doctor, Camille devoted himself to his medical career so that he
could take care of others.
If you’re healthy and
happy in midlife, you’re likely to stay that way in old age. The researchers also
found that your situation at age 50 is much more predictive of your wellbeing
and happiness at 70 than what happened when you were a kid. At age 75, Dr.
Camille wrote, “I never dreamed that my later years would be so stimulating and
rewarding.” He died at age 82 of a heart attack while climbing the Alps, a
hobby that was one of his passions. At his memorial service, packed with
friends and his family, his son recalled, “He lived a very simple life, but it
was very rich in relationships.”