Study finds personal choices yield long life

May 31, 2001

Harvard researchers report unprecedented aging study

Washington, D.C. - Living to a happy ripe old age may be a matter of personal choice, say Harvard researchers in the June 2001 American Journal of Psychiatry, the monthly scientific journal of the American Psychiatric Association.

The researchers reported results of an unprecedented study that tracked the physical and mental health of 724 men as they aged over a 60-year period.

The study, which began in 1940, is the longest continuous study of mental and physical health in the world. It contrasted the mental and physical health status of 268 Harvard sophomores with that of 456 socially disadvantaged inner-city adolescents. Physical exams were conducted every five years, and psychosocial exams were conducted every two years.

The study identified seven factors that appeared to predict successful aging: moderate alcohol use, no smoking, a stable marriage, exercise, appropriate weight, positive coping mechanisms, and no depressive illness. Depression was the only factor that affected the quality of aging which was beyond individual control.

"An active and happy old age, dear Brutus, may lie not so much in our stars and genes as in ourselves," says George E. Vaillant, M.D., co-author of "Successful Aging" and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

The researchers found that the health of the inner-city men declined more rapidly than did the health of the Harvard men; their health status at age 65 matched that of the Harvard men at age 75. However, the health of 25 inner-city men who obtained a college education declined at the same rate as the Harvard group. The investigators concluded that education - not money and social prestige - made the difference.

Vaillant and Harvard colleague Kenneth Mukamal, M.D., also reviewed results of other long-term studies of health in late life and found that the two most important predictors of successful aging were a high level of education and active involvement in an extended family.

In the last 100 years, the number of years an individual spends in active retirement has increased tenfold. For this reason it is imperative that geriatric psychiatry pay as much attention to promoting good health as to identifying and treating disease, Vaillant says.
["Successful Aging," by George E. Vaillant, M.D. and Kenneth Mukamal, M.D., p. 839, American Journal of Psychiatry, June 2001.]

The American Psychiatric Association is a national medical specialty society, founded in 1844, whose 38,000 physician members specialize in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illnesses and substance use disorders.

American Psychiatric Association

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