Can we predict how healthy we will be in our old age? We all have an interest in the answer to this question! Most of us, I would think, want to know what will give us a healthy old age.
A word of caution: These predictions are about statistics and averages – which means that they don’t apply directly to everyone. An example is smoking: smoking makes it much more likely that you will get certain diseases – but this doesn’t apply directly to everyone; so we get the reaction of, “My aunt/uncle smoked until they were 90 and it didn’t seem to do them any harm”. You can do everything right and still get sick (or are run over by a bus). These are statistical findings they apply to groups not to any particular individual. Having said that: there are some things that have been found to predict a healthier old age and some that do not.
These finding are from three longitudinal studies – the people were followed for fifty years and so there is good information on how they lived and the consequences that it had for them. The results of these three studies are reported in George Vaillants’ Ageing Well.
Firstly there are six factors – some quite surprising – that do not predict a healthy old age.
1. Hereditary. What you do matters more than the age of your parents.
2. Cholesterol (unless you have had a heart attack).
3. Stress. It may be unpleasant and cause ill health while you are experiencing it but you can recover to have a healthy old age.
4. Parental characteristics and upbringing (intelligence, social class, stability of marriage). While these things may affect our lives into middle adulthood by the time we are in old age they do not predict our health or happiness.
5. Childhood temperament. This may influence us well into adulthood. But by old age seems to make no difference to our happiness – perhaps because by then we learn to live with it or shape our lives to suit ourselves (?).
6. Emotional and social ease. These have influence into adulthood – but not into old age.
There are seven factors found that did predict a healthy old age.
1. Not smoking at all or stopping when young. This was THE single biggest factor for a healthy old age. ‘Nuff said.
2. Mature responses. That is coping with life’s difficulties through delay of gratification, humour, altruism and sublimation. This was even more important than,
3. Not abusing alcohol.
4. Healthy weight.
5. Stable marriage. Good for both physical and psychosocial health.
6. Some exercise. Good for both physical and psychosocial health.
7. Years of Education (probably due to self-care and perseverance).
For me these findings are very encouraging. With the usual portion of luck (not getting run over by buses and so forth) a healthy and happy old age is something that lies within our power.
If you like this post you might also like the others in this series.
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