This is a long post for a great book; my thanks to Mikey & Whodathunkit
for recommending it. It has a wealth of experience on aging well... and on how not
to age well. There's a tremendous amount of meat in the book, and it's worth reviewing every few years as one's own point of view (hopefully) evolves.
The "Study of Adult Development" is actually three groups. The first is Harvard's Grant Study, started in 1938 with 248 sophomores, and it's still in progress. Admittedly these are all white Anglo-Saxon males with significant social advantages, and the study was pretty rudimentary at first, but the written records & extensive interviews provide a huge pile of data. It also keeps everyone's memories from re-interpreting the past.
The Inner City Cohort started in 1939 with 14-year-old boys in reform school. They and their families also were extensively interviewed through 1962. The remaining 456 were tracked down by Vaillant in the last 30 years and the survivors are still being interviewed every two years.
The third group is Stanford professor Terman's Study of Gifted Children. He began in 1922 by selecting the top one percent from IQ tests given to California urban schoolchildren. Vaillant picked 90 women, admittedly more white Anglo-Saxons, and they've been followed continuously for over 80 years.
In his 30 years on the job, Vaillant's learned a few things about gathering data. First, most of his researchers are interns or contract psychologists who aren't full-time employees of the study. (Or they become full-time after their initial research is completed.) They review questionnaires or go into the interviews without any prior knowledge of their subjects, and they have to base their findings solely on what they read or hear. This is followed up by someone who's equipped with the full history and their findings are compared to the blind study. Even the subjects aren't told how they answered survey questions earlier in their lives. Some of them have impressively modified their "recall" or their motivations but it's all on record.
Of course his study population is small, biased toward WASPs, and mostly males. Other studies have significantly corrected those biases but of course they've only been around for a couple decades, not most of a century. His study is the oldest and by default the best.
Another concern is "attention bias"-- the effect of paying attention to people. Participants were thought to have lived their lives in a more responsible manner, or achieved more goals, just because they knew they'd have to fill out a #@$% survey or talk to one of the researchers. Vaillant disagrees and says "If only changing the course of human lives were so easy." He thinks if attention bias really existed then everyone would be required to visit a psychotherapist.
With those disclaimers in mind, here's some conclusions:
- People can grow & change. We can overcome our genes and our environment. It's not the bad things that doom us, it's the good people happening to us (at any age) that facilitate an enjoyable old age.
- Healing relationships are helped by a capacity for gratitude, forgiveness, and loving. The key is a long-term relationship with one person.
- A good marriage at age 50 predicted positive aging at 80.
- Low cholesterol at age 50 doesn't predict anything about age 80.
- Alcohol abuse consistently predicted unhappy aging. Part of the reason is that alcoholism destroys social supports.
- Learning to play & create in retirement, and learning to gain younger friends as we lose older ones, are more important than retirement income.
- Subjective good health is more important to successful aging than objective good health. It's not how you are, it's how you feel. It's OK to be ill as long as you don't feel sick.
Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson felt that children matured into adulthood by developing an identity, by learning how to become intimate in a long-term relationship with another person, and by consolidating a career among other co-workers. Even if the career was "homemaker", it required competence, compensation, & commitment while giving the person contentment.
Vaillant added that later in life, adults master the task of generativity-- teaching & guiding the next generation. This is followed by the role of "keeper of the meaning" or preserving the culture, for example by being on the International Olympic Committee instead of being an Olympic coach. And finally, adults mastered the task of "integrity"-- the wisdom of experience detached from life/death concerns and just accepting the body's decline.
Both psychs noted that adults didn't necessarily master all six tasks, not always in the same order, and not by the same age. Some were up to the sixth task at an early age-- Joan of Arc, Ghandi, Mother Theresa. Others barely got to career consolidation and died early/unhappy.
According to the book, here are six variables that did not
predict healthy aging:
- Ancestral longevity.
- Parental characteristics like social class, marriage stability, family cohesion, or early death. They sure could be traumatic but by age 70 there was no discernable effect on healthy aging.
- Childhood temperament.
- Ease of social relationships.
Here are seven factors that predicted healthy aging:
- Not smoking, or at least stopping before age 50. Even the effects of a pack a day for 20 years disappeared by age 70.
- Adaptive coping (mature defenses). As people aged, their coping styles matured from turning molehills into mountains to turning lemons into lemonade. Coping mechanisms were practically an entire chapter.
- No alcohol abuse. Abuse was determined from medical/legal evidence or by multiple reports from people around the subjects.
- Healthy weight. (Admittedly this definition has changed over the years.)
- Some exercise (another variable definition).
- A stable marriage (can't define this for you either!).
- Years of education. The more educated the Inner City men were, the more likely they were to control smoking & drinking, persevere toward their goals, and care for themselves.
Retirement was highly overrated as a life problem. Surveys consistently ranked it among the lowest stressful events. Even men who loved their work at age 60 loved their retirement even better at age 75.
The study noted four stressful retirements: (1) involuntary/unplanned, (2) no savings, (3) an unhappy home life previously escaped by going to work, and (4) bad health. Other than these four cases, 80% of retirees noted that their health improved. Of course a few of the participants were in their 80s and STILL working, so the results aren't final yet.
Essential retirement skills are thought to be: (1) replacing coworkers with another social network (even grandchildren), (2) relearning how to play, even if it's just bridge or shuffleboard, (3) learning how to create, and (4) lifelong learning.
There's more but this post is already too long. Even if it's not deemed worth buying, get a library copy and skim the interesting parts. There's enough good advice here to handle a whole flock of canaries...