That’s the secret to healthy aging? Is there any way to stay vigorous, alert and happy into our 70s, 80s and beyond? A recent study into the habits of healthy older Americans answers with a resounding yes. In fact, the remarkable study outlines seven crucial elements that go into successful aging. And most of them are under your control.
The study, published last year in the American Journal of Psychiatry, is the longest continuous study of this kind ever done. Researchers from Harvard University studied about 700 males—including Harvard students and inner-city teens—over a period of 60 years, beginning in 1940.
They used questionnaires and physical exams to track physical and mental health, independence and enjoyment of life. They found that those men who reached age 70 or 80 without mental impairment or major physical disability followed the kinds of lifestyle choices that health experts and common sense have been preaching for years.
The 7 Steps
Here’s what the most successful seniors had in common:
[ 1 ] They didn’t smoke.
[ 2 ] They didn’t abuse alcohol.
[ 3 ] They exercised regularly.
[ 4 ] They had 16 or more years of schooling.
[ 5 ] They maintained a healthy weight.
[ 6 ] They had healthy marriages.
[ 7 ] They developed mature coping skills.
All of these steps are at least somewhat within your control. The researchers found the only factor outside of your control—a history of depression—decreased your odds of healthy aging.
Of course, several of these are the same things your doctor has been telling you for years. Smoking, excessive drinking, being overweight or obese and lack of exercise have a long track record of damaging health. Plenty of research backs up these common-sense recommendations.
Some of the others make sense when you think about them, too. Education, for instance, is important. Researchers found that although inner-city men usually declined faster in old age, those who earned a college degree aged as well as those subjects who entered Harvard as young men.
The lesson: An active mind helps lead to healthier golden years.
Healthy marriages free of divorce or serious strife also helped slow the aging process. In fact, those with strong social ties throughout their life age more successfully. A positive view of marriage, family and community is key to a happy life.
Likewise, mature coping skills, such as a sense of humor when faced with conflict or stress, seem to make aging a more healthful experience.
The researchers found that the sooner people adopt these habits, the better. But even those approaching or in their senior years can improve their chances of aging gracefully by eating better, exercising more, keeping mentally challenged and staying socially active.