Two Top Factors for Aging Well From 8 to 80 and beyond
Research helps explain key factors for aging well into our golden years.
Posted Jan 22, 2019
Our son Liam recently celebrated his 8th birthday with his pals over a friendly game of soccer. We enjoyed watching him joyfully playing and connecting with his friends on and off the field.
About a week later, Suzie’s sprightly spinning instructor Steve Kane invited Suzie and all his friends from the community to celebrate his 80th birthday over a high-octane workout at the local gym where he has been teaching for years.
Suzie was impressed with what she saw and experienced. The celebration mimicked more of what you’d expect from an 8-year-old birthday celebration rather than an 80-year-old one. Steve has more energy than many folks a fraction of his age. He is an excellent role model for kids and grown-ups alike about how to age well.
These two birthday celebrations got us thinking more about aging well and what we can teach our son.
What exactly contributes to healthy aging from eight to eighty and well beyond?
This is a question we posed to our friend, the eminent Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, who spent more than half of his life at the helm of the Grant Study of Adult Development, the longest-running study on human development.
The Grant Study has closely tracked the physical and emotional health of 268 Harvard sophomore men as they aged since 1938. George shared with us the key determinants of aging well.
Habits, not heredity, are more important for health
George has documented the revelatory findings of the Grant Study in three fascinating books. His inaugural book, 1977’s Adaptation to Life, the now-classic tome on adult development, analyzed how the Harvard men were coping up to age 55 and identified a variety of positive and negative outcomes. Twenty-five years later he published Aging Well, which showed that healthy physical and emotional aging from 55 to 80 is less dependent on genes and more dependent on lifestyle choices and healthy habits, such as engaging in regular exercise, cultivating close connections with others, and having a loving marriage.
Finally, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, published more than 75 years after the inception of the groundbreaking study, follows a few dozen of the surviving men who are currently in their 90s. Many of them are thriving far beyond conventional retirement.
So, like Steve above, what is their secret?
“Habits, started before 50, not heredity, are more important for growing old gracefully, well into our 90s and beyond,” George told us. He spoke to us about the importance of regular exercise, maintaining a healthy body weight, and developing healthy coping mechanisms.
Steve concurs about the importance of developing healthy habits like regular exercise. “I’ve been a workout person all my life,” he said. “However, it’s never too late to start.”
All You Need Is Love (and exercise helps too!)
George continued illuminating us on the findings of the Grant Study. As important as physical exercise is to aging well, by far the most important determinant to healthy aging is the quality of our relationships, he said. “Loving relationships are key to thriving longevity.”
Relationships can help us recover from a damaging childhood even many decades later, George found. In fact, strong connections with other formed early in life, like the bond between a son and his mother, have a protective factor down the road.
Positive emotions, namely love, is the key ingredient for aging well into our golden years and beyond. “Having had a loving and stable marriage at 50 predicted mental and physical health at 80 better than did either exercise or weight,” he said. Feelings of joy, love, and hope affect our health.
In fact, positive emotions have a calming effect on our nervous system, similar to that of the relaxation response triggered by meditation. Imagine for a moment how you feel embraced in a warm, loving hug. Or how your child responds when you hold him in your arms closely to comfort him when he’s sad and tearful perhaps because his favorite sporting team lost a game.
Positive emotions, like love, lower our blood pressure, reduce our heart and respiratory rate, and soothe muscle tension, which in turn increases our overall health.
Loving and supportive relationships not only feel good, but are also good for us, George said.
Steve agrees about the positive implications of loving relationships and strong social connections.
“Doing classes with other people is even better than exercising alone. It’s more motivating and infectious.”
He practices what he preaches in that he regularly works out with his wife Judy, who he says was instrumental in his fitness goals. She had bought him his first gym membership over 40 years ago and they have been regularly working out together ever since.
“Being in a good relationship is very important because it’s your mental attitude toward aging that makes a difference, says Judy. “And it’s good to have a partner who wants to stay active and encourages you to do the same.”
No doubt that Steve and Judy are aging well not only due to their regular exercise habit but also because of their mutually loving and supportive relationship. They are what we refer to as “Aristotelian Lovers,” who inspire one another to be better by adopting healthy lifestyle habits.
Due to countless studies over the years, many of us are aware of the association between regular exercise and greater physical and mental well-being. However, what we may not realize is the huge impact our relationships have on our health as well since not as much research was focused on this topic until recently.
If you already have a regular exercise habit, that’s terrific. However, if you are forgoing working on your relationships due to your workout schedule and work responsibilities you might want to rethink your priorities if you’d like to age healthfully.
Take a cue from Liam and this loving couple Steve and Judy. Exercise regularly and do it with your spouse or close friends for optimal health and happiness now and for years to come.
Pileggi Pawelski, S & Pawelski, J. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.
Vaillant, George E., (2012). Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.