Can We Have A Healthy Old Age?

by Evan on 2009/08/24

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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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Lucas SanCabo August 26, 2009 at 5:41 am

This may seem strange but I couldn’t see the image above, I am using FireFox 2. anyways, what I read was very good and I enjoyed it. I was thinking about print it out, do I have permission to do that?

Evan August 26, 2009 at 7:10 am

You are most welcome to print it out. If you wish to re-produce it you are also welcome to do this so long as you acknowledge me as the source. Thanks for your interest.

McLaughlin August 30, 2009 at 4:30 pm

I find it hard to believe that “mature responses” rates higher than the following 4, but I’m glad that I am pretty good at handling things well.
I smoked young, then stopped. For 3 short periods I’ve smoked again during the last 17 years. I wonder how those 6 month to a year times will impact me at the end.

Evan August 30, 2009 at 5:58 pm

Hi (should I call you Mc?). I think the im/mature thing doesn’t really make sense. I never started smoking so escaped the hassles of having to give up (not at all sure that I would have been strong enough). Thanks for your comment.

Elliot Wilson August 31, 2009 at 4:51 am

I am guessing another way you could describe ‘Mature responses’ would be Stress Management. There are a lot of people who get everything else wrong (bad diet, hardly any exercise) but they manage stress and enjoy life and as a result they also enjoy longevity. Of course that’s not to advocate a bad diet or no exercise!

Evan August 31, 2009 at 6:54 am

Thanks Elliot, I think you’re right.

Tom Volkar / Delightful Work September 1, 2009 at 8:50 am

Mature responses is actually good news now that I’ve finally matured. So even if we survived road rage it kills regardless. Over-reaction to anything makes one stupid and old. Good stuff.

Evan September 1, 2009 at 5:58 pm

Hi Tom. I really like, “Over-reaction to anything makes one stupid and old.” Thanks for your comment.

thatgirlisfunny September 4, 2009 at 2:30 am

For me, smiling when I really mean it and laughing whenever and wherever are the keys to anti-aging.

Evan September 4, 2009 at 7:32 am

Excellent points – and possibly healing too – Norman Cousins An Illness Observed about laughing himself back to health.

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