Secrets to a Longer, Happier Life

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.

"With 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.”

The 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.

“Where 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."

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Another 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.

Originally called the Harvard Grant Study—and later renamed the Study of Adult Development, 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."

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  • 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.”

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