In 1938, in the middle of the Great Depression, Harvard College started tracking the health of 238 sophomores. John F. Kennedy and renowned Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee were among the original subjects in the study. Known originally as ‘The Grant Study’ – as in W.T. Grant – the project later adopted the name, The Harvard Study of Adult Development.
Project participants responded to detailed questionnaires about their life and submitted to rigorous health examinations on a yearly or biennial basis. The Harvard study compiled the most comprehensive set of data known to answer the question: “what factors spell out the recipe for optimal aging?”
They have a definitive answer: connections with friends, family, and associates. Relationships are the key to both health and happiness according to leaders of the Harvard Study. This finding ranks among the top reasons people in their 80’s and beyond want to stay in their home. Maintaining social relationships with neighbors and friends is stimulating and enjoyable. People with the strongest social networks are most likely to enjoy good health and positive mindsets. “
Several other factors promote healthy aging based on conclusions from the Harvard study and other research projects.
Optimism is a powerful force. Becca Levy at Yale has shown that optimistic people are about half as likely as their gloomier peers to contract dementia. How can we sustain an optimistic viewpoint when chronic disease restricts our vitality, and we suffer the pain of losing dear friends and beloved family? Every day is a gift, … and an opportunity to make a connection with someone we haven’t spoken to in a while. Every day presents opportunities to offer a kind word and supportive gesture to others who may be struggling with a loss or setback.
Cultivate the capacity for joy – even momentary joy. Marvel at the beauty of a sunrise, the erratic flight of a butterfly or the exquisite colors of a flower. Appreciate the genius of a Mozart concerto or the power of a Beethoven masterpiece. Speaking of joy – try this one on for size. Personally, when I depart this life, I want to go out with the expression of the girl in red on the lamppost at the very end of her second appearance.
Maintaining active lifestyle habits sustains memory function and cognitive acuity overall. Physical activity promotes the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus which acts as the central switching station for memory. Exercise also pumps up the production of BDNF, a brain protein that John Ratey M.D. of Harvard Medical School calls ‘Miracle Gro for the brain.’
I recently published an article in Vermont Maturity on Generativity. Find the opportunity to do something for others, especially for children and teens. Our teen population is struggling with some serious issues these days. Find a way to offer a compassionate hand of support. Mature adults have the means and the opportunity to shape their quality of life in the late decades of life.
Richard Houston holds a Doctorate in Education and was licensed by the Massachusetts Board of Psychology. He is a graduate of Brown University. He has conducted research on the psychological dimensions of healthy lifestyle behaviors with 1600 adult residents of Silicon Valley and has had long term consulting relationships with several continuing care retirement communities. You can visit his websites at Senior-psych.com and Resilience-Advocate.com.