By Bob Ritzema
Some time ago I wrote a post about George Vaillant and the Harvard Study of Adult Development. I’ve since read Aging Well, Vaillant’s 2002 book in which he drew conclusions from the Harvard Study up to that point. In what follows, I’ll introduce the study and describe some of his findings regarding healthy aging.
The Harvard Study (also known as the Grant Study after department-store magnate W. T. Grant, who provided initial funding) was begun in 1937 to trace the long-term course of healthy adult development. A multi-disciplinary team of experts from medicine and the social sciences led by physician Arlie Bock selected 268 undergraduates primarily from the Harvard classes of ’42, ’43, and ’44. The study was to be one of normal adult development, so students who showed evidence of physical or psychological difficulty were screened out. The men were interviewed several times by a psychiatrist and given physical and psychological tests. Then they were followed throughout the course of their lives, receiving questionnaires about every two years and being interviewed about every 15 years.
Eventually, two additional samples that had been part of other studies were added. Criminologists Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck had started a study of delinquent and non-delinquent youth in 1939, continuing to study them until the early ‘60s. Contact with the participants was lost until about 1975, when Vaillant contacted as many of the non-delinquent group as he could find and instituted the same questionnaires and interviews with them as with the Harvard sample. Vaillant also included a female comparison group from the Terman study of highly intelligent young people begun in 1922.
Vaillant looked at the information gathered from these samples to determine factors associated with healthy aging. Healthy aging, he decided, consisted of both physical health (measured by factors such as the absence of an irreversible illness or a disability) and emotional health (factors here include absence of psychiatric diagnosis, success at work and play, and high levels of satisfaction with at least two areas of life). Based on these and other criteria, Vaillant classified the men in the Harvard and Inner City samples as either Happy-Well, Sad-Sick, or Prematurely Dead (before age 75 for the Harvard men; before 65 for the Inner City men).
Vaillant found that there were five factors that predicted healthy aging in both male samples. These were:
- Not being a smoker or stopping young
- An adaptive coping style
- Absence of alcohol abuse
- A stable marriage
- Not being overweight
In addition, getting regular exercise predicted healthy aging for the Harvard men and getting at least 12 years of education predicted healthy aging for both the Inner City men and the Terman women. Among the Harvard men who had at least five of their six protective factors at age 50, half were Happy-Well at age 80 and only 8 percent were Sad-Sick at 80.
Putting aside an adaptive coping style for now (that will take a bit more explanation), I’m struck by the importance of self-control in affecting healthy aging. Not smoking, drinking heavily, or being overweight all entail saying ‘no’ to activities that many of us find appealing. Exercising entails saying ‘yes’ to something that can be pure drudgery. There’s even a self-control aspect to having a stable marriage. Psychologists have found that self-control functions like a muscle. That means it can get depleted in the short term, but, the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. It’s likely that the men who eventually became Happy-Well were those who had exercised self-control regularly throughout life, thus strengthening through the years both their ability to resist temptations and their proclivity to exercise enough to make a difference. Even for those of us oldsters whose actual muscles are only a shadow of what they used to be, it makes sense to strengthen our self-control muscles by regular use!
Vailliant has much more to say about aging well; I’ll be discussing additional findings in subsequent posts.
Trained as a clinical psychologist, Bob had a career as a psychotherapist and teacher of psychology. He resigned from his post as Professor of Psychology at Methodist University in 2012, when he was 64, to return to Michigan and help his parents. His father died in September, 2014, and Bob now divides his time between Michigan and North Carolina. He maintains small psychology practices in each state. He blogs at Beyond Halfway.