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Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development Hardcover – January 9, 2002
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"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
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.
Top customer reviews
I would never have found this book if it had not been on the end table of the Assisted Living Facility and caught my interest while awaiting an opportunity to talk with the Administrator of the facility where my wife was living prior to here passing.
1. The author is quite conscious of the impact of privilege on the lives of the Harvard graduates he studies, and repeatedly makes efforts to determine what kinds of success are, or are not, the result of privilege. He pays close attention to the lives of the women in the Terman study, and the "Inner-City" men who were not born into privilege, to compare them with the experience of the white male Harvard graduates.
2. The methods of the study (as, I assume, with the field in general) repeatedly make efforts to correct for the bias of individual observers, including the author. Over the decades, there have been many efforts by "blind" raters to examine one part of the subjects' files, with no knowledge of the rest of that subject's file. I.e. a physician reads the file to evaluate the subject's physical health, with no knowledge of that subject's childhood, professional or personal life, etc. This is not simply about the author interviewing people and confirming his pet theories, although you could superficially get that impression.
3. The author is very frank and aboveboard, that he, like every one of us, has certain biases and prejudices in how he sees the world: he is a liberal East Coast academic. However, it is absurd to say that the book is simply a reflection of his prejudices. He writes sensitively and appreciatively about business-executive Republican types (though he is an academic liberal) and about religious believers (though he is not one). I personally am acutely sensitive to the ubiquitous and un-self-conscious liberal bias in the media and academia, and I really did not find any here. Any given page of the New York Times is 100x worse than this book, if liberal bias is something that bothers you.
Finally, a couple of interesting points that I believe the book proves well:
* Within the cohort of (those who were privileged enough to be) Harvard grads, there was little or no correlation between social status at birth and at the end of life. Many men began with trust funds and boarding school, and ended up scraping by; others from small country towns wound up wealthy.
* Many of the "Inner-City" men, who were raised in or near poverty, with few opportunities or privileges, were able to have healthy, rewarding, inspiring lives, with happy marriages, satisfying work, community ties, grandchildren, rewarding hobbies, etc. On average, they had worse physical health, less prestigious occupations, and lower incomes than the Harvard cohort, but were in no way less happy -- again, on average.
What I take away from this book is the idea that although gifts, talents, luck, personal, physical and intellectual qualities, looks, social status, and privilege are all very unequally distributed in life, it is possible to respond well or badly to life's slings and arrows, and that the nature of this response can have a huge impact on your later life. (i.e.: Avoid alcoholism at all costs!!! Seriously.)