Lots of factors influence how well we age.  Maintaining healthy behaviors such as eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, getting adequate rest, and learning how to manage stress can all contribute to the prevention of lifestyle diseases – hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, inflammatory diseases, and some cancers –  and also to ensuring that we maintain our physical and mental capacities as we get older.

Obviously, genes and heredity also play a part, as well as environment.  But if there is one thing you could do to influence not just how long you live, but how well you live as you age, what do you think it would be?

A 75 year-old Harvard study, the Grant Study, followed a group of men, all of whom were sophomores at Harvard during the years 1939-1944, and tracked their emotional and physical well-being through the years.  Among the participants were President John F. Kennedy, future senators, and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Researchers compiled their findings and the results are fascinating.

George Valliant, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard who directed the study for over 30 years, noted some of the study’s findings, among them:

  • Warm childhood relationships with their mother matters long into adulthood.  Close and caring relationships with mothers enabled men to earn an average of $87,000 more a year than men whose mothers were distant and unloving.
  • Men who had poor childhood relationships with their mothers were much more likely to develop dementia when old.
  • Men’s childhood relationships with their mothers were related to their success at work in later life.
  • When married, alcoholism was the main cause of divorce between the Grant Study men and their wives.
  • Economic success correlates with the strength of one’s relationships, and not wholly on intelligence or financial acumen.

Among the results of the now 75-year-old study the most important influence on health and longevity turns out to be community, our connections to others. Robert Waldinger, the current Director of the study said that, “The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health.”

Good relationships, more than financial or social status. are key to what enables people to be happy throughout their lives, according to this research. Close bonds with others help us deal with life’s ups and downs, help to postpone emotional and physical deterioration, and basically can forecast whether we will live longer and happier.  Close connections even beat genes when it comes to leading healthier and happier lives.

Maybe George Valliant, who wrote three books on the subject, said it best: “Happiness is love. Full stop,” and “… the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

In this age of social media, smart phones, texting, and virtual relationships, maybe it’s time to come out from behind our devices, and spend more time bonding with our real-life connections. It’s good for both of you.

Categories: Health