I’ve just finished making my way through an excellent book: Aging Well by Dr. George E. Vaillant, a psychiatrist and the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The study has used periodic interviews and questionnaires to track three groups of elderly men and women since 1937, making it the longest prospective study of physical and mental health in the world. (“Prospective” means that it evaluates events as they occur, rather than in retrospect.)
Subtitled “Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life”, the book actually does surprise. First is Vaillant’s hopeful dictum that “The past often predicts but never determines our old age.” Finally, a tonic for guilt-ridden mothers: “What goes right in childhood predicts the future far better than what goes wrong . . . . expressed differently, unhappy [emphasis his] childhoods become less important with time.” Another finding is that those who age well do not become more religious or spiritual. Rather, religiosity links to depression, leading Vaillant to discard his own preconceptions and observe that “Religious affiliation and psychiatrists both serve as an effective balm for depression and lack of love.”
Another counterintuitive finding (and one that certainly spoke to my preconceptions): “there is scant evidence that the old are any wiser than people over 30.” One more: education trumps IQ and parental income when it comes to health. It correlates with self-care and perseverance; educated people are more likely, for example, to quit smoking and to exercise. Yes, habits like those — established by age fifty and largely controllable — have by far the greatest influence on how well we age. Throw curiosity, social networks, a good marriage, and learning to play into the mix and it’s lookin’ good. The book is no whitewash, though: “Ultimately, and most bluntly,” writes Vaillant, “successful aging means the mastery of decay.” But this task brings happiness: the old are less depressed than the general population, and most suffer little incapacitating illness until the one that does them in.