Monday, May 25, 2009

The good life...

Note the lack of capitals in the lede.  I've never bought into the concept of a definitive "Good Life" description, but have noticed many folks seem to live good lives.  What exactly that entailed danced around the edges of my comprehension, but this amazing longitudinal study seems to shed some light:

What allows people to work, and love, as they grow old? By the time the Grant Study men had entered retirement, Vaillant, who had then been following them for a quarter century, had identified seven major factors that predict healthy aging, both physically and psychologically.
Employing mature adaptations was one. The others were education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight. Of the 106 Harvard men who had five or six of these factors in their favor at age 50, half ended up at 80 as what Vaillant called “happy-well” and only 7.5 percent as “sad-sick.” Meanwhile, of the men who had three or fewer of the health factors at age 50, none ended up “happy-well” at 80. Even if they had been in adequate physical shape at 50, the men who had three or fewer protective factors were three times as likely to be dead at 80 as those with four or more factors.
What factors don’t matter? Vaillant identified some surprises. Cholesterol levels at age 50 have nothing to do with health in old age. While social ease correlates highly with good psychosocial adjustment in college and early adulthood, its significance diminishes over time. The predictive importance of childhood temperament also diminishes over time: shy, anxious kids tend to do poorly in young adulthood, but by age 70, are just as likely as the outgoing kids to be “happy-well.” Vaillant sums up: “If you follow lives long enough, the risk factors for healthy life adjustment change. There is an age to watch your cholesterol and an age to ignore it.”
The study has yielded some additional subtle surprises. Regular exercise in college predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health. And depression turned out to be a major drain on physical health: of the men who were diagnosed with depression by age 50, more than 70 percent had died or were chronically ill by 63. More broadly, pessimists seemed to suffer physically in comparison with optimists, perhaps because they’re less likely to connect with others or care for themselves. [More]

There are all kind of qualifiers that immediately spring to mind.  For one, the history of the times these men lived through pertains, as Gladwell suggests in Outliers.  The fact that the subjects are all men.  The list begins immediately in our heads and proceeds to exempt us from comparison.

This is the adaptation of age mentioned in the excerpt.  Our brains are remarkably subtle and efficient about remodeling our memories and adjusting our emotional responses in the face of reality.  The closing paragraphs of the article struck me on this melancholy not-planting Memorial Day.

Here's wishing helpful memories and good living attend your holiday.

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