Micael Widell

What makes for a long life?

/ happiness

Earlier I've written about the Harvard Study of Adult Development. I find it to be one of the most interesting studies ever done on happiness and quality of life. It is a combination of two cohorts of men, 270 well-off men studying at Harvard, and 456 disadvantaged Boston inner city youth, who were followed from adolescence through their whole life.

The study has looked at several different things, and over the years several different researchers have been conducting sub-studies. What is so nice, is that they have focused first and foremost on collecting data on the individual lives each year. Interviews, health checks, interviews with relatives, happiness assessments, DNA sampling, etc. All so that later scientists may use the data in ways that nobody thought possible at the time of collecting it.

For a short introduction to the study and a brief summary of the most important findings, I still recommend this TED talk. For a longer, super-interesting overview of the study, I recommend the book Triumphs of Experience, written by the current director of the study.

Below some interesting facts from this book regarding longevity. I must emhasize these are just some random facts that I personally found interesting. The book contains manyfold more interesting findings, and I will write more on this blog about more findings later.

  • Character is not set in stone. People change over a lifetime. Even if your life sucks at age 20, 50 or whatever, you may have an excellent life 10-20 years later. This was found in most of the subject's lives. So if your life sucks right now, wait 10 years and you might have a whole different situation.

  • Conditions that appear important in ten-year studies, such as parental social class, loss of a parent at an early age, or membership in a multiproblem family, appear much less important over the entire course of a life.

  • People who had been in combat in war died younger. They were six times more likely to die form unnatural causes like murder or suicide, and twice as likely to die before age 80.

  • Personal characteristics of perseverance and self-motivation adds 10 years to your life expectancy, compared to people who lack both of these two characteristics. If you are a fighter, you live longer.

  • Vascular risk factors decrease life length with 18 years. This is pretty huge. Vascular risk factors include smoking, physical inactivity and eating too much junkfood.

  • If you have long lived ancestors it adds 7 years to your life expetancy

  • The social class you belonged to when you were born, ie. your parents' social class, makes for less then a year in life expectancy

  • Post-graduate education prolonged life by four years

  • For the people in the study who reached age 90, 33% of the men with poor relationships with their mothers earlier in life suffered from dementia. Of the men with good and warm relationships with their mothers, only 13% suffered from dementia. It is striking how your relationship with your mother at a young age determines your mental health at age 90.

  • In neither the College nor the Inner City sample did average cholesterol levels at age fifty distinguish the men who lived to ninety from those who died before eighty.

  • Alcoholism gives 17 years shorter lifespan

  • College graduation important to longevity - it gives you 9 years

So to summarize; don't become an alcoholic. Exercise regularly. Graduate college. Eat healthy food.

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