The 6 factors for successful ageing – a message of hope?

The context

Back in 1938 Harvard started what has turned into the longest running longitudinal study on adult health and development.  At the time of writing in 2017,only a few of the original cohort are still alive and are in their 90’s! Over time the study has expanded to include women and the descendants of the original cohort and has expanded to include how early life experiences may affect health and ageing over the long term.

The 6 factors

From a huge mass of data, there appear to be six factors that affect the quality of ageing, by which I mean the  quality of life and levels of happiness that people perceive themselves as experiencing. Although there are six factors, one of them stands out as having a greater effect.

The 6

  1. physical activity
  2. absence of alcohol abuse
  3. absence of smoking
  4. having psychological mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs
  5. healthy weight
  6. stable marriage

The list based on the study comes from this book

The one main factor

There was one main factor that stands out from the study and it is the reason why I have subtitled this article, a message of hope?

The one factor is good quality relationships.

“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we ar in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health”. (Robert Waldinger – current and fourth director of the project)

This finding is interestingly  not what the participants in the study would have initially predicted. They were pretty much concerned with the normal striving after wealth and fame, which might sound familiar.

Putting the matter more strongly,

“And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic.” (Waldinger)

After the initial cohort started reaching their 80s, the researchers became interested in looking back at the participants’ middle lives to see if there was any predictive pattern as to how later life would turn out. There was, and it was quite simply how satisfied someone was in their relationship.

That’s it.

So not relationships per se. Toxic marriages, for example had (unsurprisingly) no health benefits.

“But over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.” (Waldinger)


The question mark?

So why the question mark? Surely this is good news? Well, an increasing number of people are isolated and lonely, so how does this research affect them?

Perhaps the message of hope is that if we recognise that relationships bring such positive benefits, then we can begin to prioritise building and nurturing them. It’s something that we can begin to do right now and may lead to the gradual lifestyle changes that seem to contribute to long and happier lives.

That would, I think be the message from a cognitive skills development point of view and another factor that weighs in on the side of hope is that personality factors were not fixed in stone.

“Those who were clearly train wrecks when they were in their 20s or 25s turned out to be wonderful octogenarians, on the other hand, alcoholism and major depression could tke people who started life as stars and leave them at the end of their lives as train wrecks.” (Waldinger)

So, forewarned is forearmed, is it not? Beginning to / continuing to foster positive relationships across contexts is a priority which we could all benefit from.

You may also like:

What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness  (ted talk)

The original study

Interesting summary of the study


As always I am interested in your thoughts and comments, so please make that step towards forming a relationship!


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