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Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development Paperback – January 8, 2003


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"We all need models for how to live from retirement to past 80--with joy," writes George Vaillant, M.D., director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. This groundbreaking book pulls together data from three separate longevity studies that, beginning in their teens, followed 824 individuals for more than 50 years. The subjects were male Harvard graduates; inner-city, disadvantaged males; and intellectually gifted women.

"Here you have these wonderful files, and you seem little interested in how we cope with increasing age ... our adaptability, our zest for life," one of these subjects wrote to Vaillant, a researcher, psychiatrist, and Harvard Medical School professor, about how he was using this information. Vaillant took this advice to heart. In Aging Well, he presents personal narratives about people from these studies whom he interviewed personally in their 70s and 80s. He describes their history, relationships, hardships, philosophies, and sources of joy. We learn their perspectives and what makes them want to get up in the morning.

We also learn what makes old age vital and interesting. Vaillant discusses the important adult developmental tasks, such as identity, intimacy, and generativity (giving to the next generation), and provides important clues to a healthy, meaningful, satisfying old age. Health in old age, we learn, is not predicted by low cholesterol or ancestral longevity, but by factors such as a stable marriage, adaptive coping style (the ability to make lemonade out of life's lemons), and regular exercise.

Vaillant is empathetic and sometimes surprisingly poetic: "Owning an old brain, you see, is rather like owning an old car.... Careful driving and maintenance are everything." He freely includes subjective observations and interpretations, giving us a richer picture of the people he interviewed and insights into their lives. Aging Well is recommended for readers who are interested in learning about the quality-of-life issues of aging from the people who have the most to teach. --Joan Price --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

This groundbreaking sociological analysis is based on three research projects that followed over 800 people from their adolescence through old age. Subjects were drawn from the Harvard Grant study of white males, the Inner City study of non-delinquent males and the Terman Women study of gifted females, begun respectively in 1921, 1930 and 1911. In all three studies, subjects were interviewed at regular intervals over time, a design that prevented observations from being skewed by the distortions of memory and allowed for analyses that distinguished effect from cause. Vaillant (The Natural History of Alcoholism), a psychiatrist and professor at the Harvard Medical School, brings a nuanced point of view and an acceptance of the project's limitations. (Those followed were not randomly selected and were overwhelmingly Caucasian.) Nevertheless the author makes compelling use of his data, which is based on intensive contacts with a variety of subjects. Vaillant posits that successful physical and emotional aging is most dependent on a lack of tobacco and alcohol abuse by subjects, an adaptive coping style, maintaining healthy weight with some exercise, a sustained loving (in most cases, marital) relationship and years of education. This is good news since factors that cannot be altered, such as ancestral longevity, parental characteristics and childhood temperament, were among those ruled out as predictors. The book's academic tone will reassure some readers and put others off, but Vaillant's arresting interviews with selected subjects (recounted here) and his ability to learn from the subjects make this an outstanding contribution to the study of aging. National publicity.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; Reprint edition (January 8, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316090077
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316090070
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 5.9 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #82,467 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

George E. Vaillant, M.D., is a psychoanalyst and a research psychiatrist, one of the pioneers in the study of adult development. He is a professor at Harvard University and directed Harvard's Study of Adult Development for thirty-five years. He is the author of Aging Well, Triumphs of Experience and The Natural History of Alcoholism, and his 1977 book, Adaptation to Life, is a classic text in the study of adult development. He lives in Orange California, but works part time at Massachusetts GenealHospital.

Customer Reviews

Found the book to be both interesting and informative.
C. Gray
Im nearing 30, and read the book as a self selected book for a book report for a college gerentology course.
Lorriger rogerson
This book, unhappily, falls short, er,...rather it falls too short by being too long.
A. colbert

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

64 of 68 people found the following review helpful By Sandra D. Peters on January 17, 2002
Format: Hardcover
While many individuals may find the reading is too classic textbook and dry for their liking, as one who has studied behavioural psychology, I found the book extremely mind-absorbing.
The book closely follows a study of 824 individuals from birth through to old age and shows us how we can prolong our years and health. While genetics do play a role, there is little we can do to change our genetic make-up. What we can do is change our habits and day-to-day way of living. Easier said than done, but a choice, from a health perspective, that may yeild benefits as the years slowly slip by. One may think that avoiding alcohol and smoking, eating a healthy diet, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight are old hat issues, but the author shows just how dramatically those things can and do affect our remaining years. He also shows how sharing a happy, loving relationship can enhance our feeling of well being. Continuing the education process can also increase our state of health by challenging our mind and keeping it active and alert.
Hopefully, younger, health conscious individuals will take avantage of reading this book in order to prevent many of the pitfalls we fall into as we age. Some of us wait until that magic middle-age crisis hits before we realize what we should have been doing years ago. However, it is never too late to change and many readers will find valuable information here that may make the aging years more fulfilling, healthy and enjoyable. A book, also highly recommended, is "The Wisdom of the Ego" by the same author.
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176 of 208 people found the following review helpful By J. Grattan VINE VOICE on February 2, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Aging Well" is a book that does not clearly establish what it wants to say specifically about aging. Is it a book about longevity or is it a textbook on adult development? A main purpose of the author is to convey the findings of a multi-decade study of three distinct groups totaling about 800 individuals as they aged: a male Harvard student cohort born in 1920; a male inner city cohort born about 1930; and a gifted female cohort born in California about 1910. However the emphasis is on the Harvard cohort, a group that most assuredly stands apart from typical American lives. All of the interviewees were at least 70 years of age by 2000 but the specific commonality of longevity seems to get lost in the author's focus on more general social and emotional developmental concerns. However, the author establishes little connection between longevity and such development.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the book is that only a very limited, and at times inadequate, overview is presented regarding various social and emotional developmental topics. The author bases the entire book on Erik Erikson's ideas about adult developmental stages, which in his interpretation consists of the sequential tasks of identity, intimacy, career consolidation, generativity, keeper of the meaning, and integrity. There is no discussion about the legitimacy of those ideas or whether there are alternative ideas. The principal means of elaborating on those views is by presenting mini-profiles of about 50 individuals throughout the book who supposedly have or have not attained a particular level of development. It is burdensome for the reader to be presented with so many case studies to weigh.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By booklover on April 19, 2003
Format: Paperback
Mountains of research was reviewed to write this book. For that effort I added an additional star to the three I gave for the book itself. The three studies referenced in this book began before the author was born or when he was a youngster. Dr. Vaillant's participation with these projects began decades later. This data was fragmented and resided on many different mediums. He undertook the task of getting all the data compiled onto a hard drive. His next task was to correlate the data (which was not always consistent between the three studies) to form meaningful patterns about aging.
His book is an "attempt to offer models for how to live from retirement to past 80 with joy". Comparing his pursuit to Dr. Spock's career in the study of child development, the author also perceives his book as "an attempt to anticipate development of old age and understand what can be changed and what has to be accepted."
Using composite histories of the study participants for comparison, six adult life tasks are reviewed: Identity, Intimacy, Career Consolidation, Generativity, Keeper of the Meaning and Integrity. The author strives to determine if we are genetically predisposed in how we experience these phases or in some cases choose to stay indefinitely in a phase that is comfortable rather than move on to experience another.
I read this book out of curiousity about the experiences of advanced aging in the United States and feel I now have a good foundation for developing a philosophy about my own aging process.
This book is not a deep scholarly rendition, however, the majority of the 300+ pages examing statistical data and percentage references became tiresome and difficult to analyze in lengthy reading sessions.
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