Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development

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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

Now in paperback, the acclaimed bestseller that reveals the scientific secrets to ensuring that our golden years are truly golden. Based on the longest and most complete study of adult development in the world, AGING WELL draws from the individual histories of 824 men and women from a variety of backgrounds to illustrate the most important factors involved in reaching and enjoying a happy, healthy old age.

Customer Reviews:

    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....more info

  • Aging Well is helpful
    The most useful information I found was the four areas listed for seniors to follow in later life. The recommendations were based on several comprehensive studies which followed people throughout their lifetimes. I did find it odd that in the beginning the author completely overlooked work done by Abraham Maslow many years ago, and instead insisted that he (the author) had been the first to study healthy people. This, however, was a small thing overall and didn't take away from the relevance of the information....more info
  • Best nonfiction book I have read
    While one cannot take the author literally as to each item or recommendation (and the author probably does not expect you to), this insightful text has many great ideas for staying young and living a full rewarding life, regardless of your financial status.

    This should be required reading to pass 30 years of age!...more info

  • A good foundation for creating a philosophy about aging
    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. I preferred reading a chapter and putting the book down for a while.

    A helpful tip: I realized, after the fact, that reading the appendices first would have helped me understand of some terms and jargon used to refer to elements of the studies....more info

  • If you must it, check it out from the library
    If you have read the excerpt available on this site, you have already read the best part of the book, so don't bother purchasing it.

    There are a lot of things wrong with this book, but I think the most glaring is the author's utterly un-subtle understanding of human nature. Unfortunately in an effort to preserve participant privacy, the author "disguised" the identities of his subjects. What that means in practical terms is that all "examples" of "real" lives are actually composites which have essentially been fabricated by the author. Now, I would be okay with that if the author was a talented novelist with the ability to preserve poigniant detail while sacrificing factuality. But sadly, this is not the case. There is not a single life-story in the book that takes up more than a few pages and for this reason alone, they are all disappointing simplifications. The scant space spent on each life story is even more disconcerting when you think that this guy has access to 50 or 60 years of these people's histories! There is one and only one example that gets an even close to humanizing portrayal: that is the example you find in the excerpt available on-line. (And even that reads like a fairy tale.) Most other vignettes are about 2 pages, surely not enough to do anyone justice, even the most one-sided person. In fact almost every character introduced fits into one of two catagories: Mr. Joe Popular (with loving wife, great kids, super career and cloying "aw-shucks" attitude) or Mr. Sad-sack (with no friends, multiple divorces, no contact with kids and utter career directionlessness). These are fine as arche-types, but after a few hundred pages, you really get the feeling that the author is actually INCAPABLE of reccognizing any greater level of nuance in the human experience.

    Essentially, the author's point is this: HAVE FRIENDS. Do that and your life will be hunky-dory. Neglect relationships and you will wallow in your own personal hell and probably die young. So there you have it. It is sad and a disservice to people's complicated life-histories that the author was not able to reflect the true diversity of human experience.

    BUT! There are other things that bug me about this book. Firstly, the author is obsesses with his "Harvard Men" -- and especially anyone who went to Med school. And from reading this book you'd get the feeling that at least 90% of the respondants are doctors. I get feeling Dr. Valliant identifies a little too closely with people who are JUST LIKE HIM. It is sad that he can't see further than the end of his nose. For this same reason, I'm sure, the "Inner City" men get very little air time.

    ALSO!Despite claims that one of the studies focuses on women, virtually no mention is made of these subjects. When the women are mentioned Dr. Valliant has such a stilted view of their lives, it is a bit sickening....more info

  • A promising book
    I just read some 20 pages of excerpt from this book. Really promises to be an interesting and informative read. A prospective (and not retrospective) study of the subjects over their lifetime - this book analyzes and draws inferences about what ways that could lead to a more satisfying life. Even if you dont agree with the author's views, just reading through the life histories of some "successful", "ordinary" people should provide great interest....more info
  • A Useful Pop-Psych Antidote to Aging Poorly
    With around 320 pages of main text, not counting the appendices, Vaillant takes some time to present a popularization of several longitudinal studies of adult development, and to put forth the idea that development doesn't simply stop at 5, 12, 21, or even 45, but that it continues, with specific challenges, into the late and late-late years of life.

    As a book intended for popular reading, Vaillant can be expected to make assertions and hopeful noises that his data don't necessarily back up to the same extent as he would for a peer reviewed journal. Generalizability from the studies he has available (which are impressive accomplishments in social science research, even with all of their limitations) is sketchy, especially since he gives most of his time to the Harvard group of white men.

    Still, even seeing a limited portrayal of a slice of the population that's gotten young-old (60-69), old-old (70-79), and become the oldest-old (80+) has its benefits. For one thing, it does help lay out a trajectory that those of us who are distant from the older generations can use of to conceive the future of our parents and the present of our grandparents in ways beyond loss.

    So if you want a pick=me up and a reminder about many of the strengths and successes of the elderly go ahead and pick this up. Just don't expect it to tell you as much about the disadvantaged elderly....more info

  • A guidebook the the seven ages of man
    I have now read this book twice and I share the fact of the wisdom it contains with anyone who will listen. I believe it is an excellent guide on the path through life, the journey to success as a human being. Here you can learn how to laugh into maturity and leave a legacy in old age. But it's about more than those. You can also learn how others have successfully and unsuccessfully navigated the challenges of the twenties, the rapids of the thirties and the doldrums of the forties. And by their examples you can create your own path through to self knowledge....more info
  • Liberal bias
    Given the usual tendancy of liberal academicians to deny their obvious bias against moderates and conservatives, it was refreshing to see Vaillant admit a few of his biases (and the biases of other liberals). He admits that, contrary to his expectations, conservatives do not age any worse than liberals. He had expected conservatives to age poorly because he thought that conservatives were not "as loving" as liberals--presumably because conservatives have some set of moral standards, whereas liberals do not have any such scruples. Vaillant also admits that social scientists have a tendency to display "contempt" for Christians.

    In general, Vaillant sets his own personal spiritual musings above any recognized religion, dismissing as "immature" anyone who expresses convictions regarding any and all traditional monotheistic religions--especially Christianity. Unfortunately, Vaillant is utterly unaware of how pompous and immature his own posturing appears....more info

  • Fascinatin' Data
    This is an outstanding book if for no other reason that it describes in detail not one, but three studies that have followed selected groups of individuals from youth through old age over the course of the twentieth century. Two of the groups studied were drawn largely from people of privilege, but the third most assuredly was not.

    The author became the ultimate caretaker of the data from the largest studies as part of his work at Harvard. As perhaps a sign of the times, the data from that study, which once was recorded painstakingly in ledger volumes now sits in his hard drive (one hopes carefully backed up). Simply learning that these studies existed was an eye-opener for me. What treasures!

    Though Vaillant happily draws a number of subjective conclusions from the data in the course of this book, he provides substantial information about the objective facts from which his conclusions are drawn. The reader is educated sufficiently to differ with confidence when so moved. The author's periodic confessions of how his views on various study participants evolved of the course of many years is a rather charming demonstration of aging well in its own right. This book is not intended as a scholarly work, however, and the data are not reproduced in full.

    I thought the descriptions of individuals who participated in the study, disguised though they might be, and of the author himself, to be the most interesting part of the book. Though they prevent _Aging Well_ from being a simple "Guide To Enjoying Being Old," the participant profiles provide considerable nuance and subtlety as the author ponders the age-old question, how are we to make the best of our lot in life?...more info

  • More confusion than clarity about aging
    "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.

    It is here that the author's subjectivity becomes most apparent as he is very inclined to label those surrounded by somewhat extensive social networks be they ones of family, patients, customers, or friends as having aged well. He takes no notice of single adults or childless couples; two situations that would undoubtedly have an impact on traditional socialization. In one case he lauds as brilliant a man who has focused on the tasks of intimacy and career for the first twenty years of his adult life and then turns to generativity, or nurturing the young. One wonders if his children would appreciate the twenty years of de-emphasis on them. Frankly, it makes the development laid out by the author seem questionable.

    In addition, the author demonstrates little appreciation for the atypical life chances and economic standing of the Harvard cohort. He finds it quite commendable that one-half of the Harvard cohort remained in their full-time work at age 65, failing completely to understand that the career control of doctors, lawyers, professors, and business owners and executives of the Harvard cohort far exceeds the options available to most people. He basically sidesteps the entire topic of adequate retirement income, even regarding it at one point as relatively unimportant compared to learning to play.

    The author also classifies childhoods as ranging from "the Loveless" to "the Cherished." But to what effect? It is found that the negatives of childhood generally do not translate into life beyond age 50 and certainly not to longevity. In deference to general adult development textbook mode, the author makes a brief jargon-laced foray into both maladaptive and adaptive defense mechanisms that is bound to leave most lay readers just baffled.

    The author frequently refers to "healthy" aging, but, again, what is it? We do learn that ancestral longevity, cholesterol levels, stress, parental characteristics, childhood temperament, and ease in social relationships do not predict healthy aging. What does predict healthy aging? Among the Harvard cohort, no alcohol abuse, no heavy smoking, and not being overweight were the greatest predictors of healthy aging followed by some exercise, a stable marriage, and then mature defenses. Among the Inner City cohort, a stable marriage was found to be the best predictor of successful aging followed by the same top three of the Harvard cohort and then by 12-plus years of education and by mature defenses. A major disconnect in the book is a discrepancy where the text claims that mature defenses ranks as the second best predictor contrary to the data displayed in charts.

    So what is learned from this book? Some adults develop more or perhaps differently than others. Some adults have lives that are more social than others. Some adults are happier than others. None of that is unique to aging. It could well have a lot to do with life's circumstances that are largely outside an individual's control. We do learn that the author is somewhat judgmental concerning the quality of various individuals' lives in old age. Adults without bad consumption habits stand a far better chance of living longer than those who abuse their bodies. It probably did not take a Harvard study and a book to know most of this. Maybe the lesson is to go to Harvard and live long....more info

  • Vaillant, George E. (2002). Aging well. Boston, Little, Brow

    George E. Vaillant is well qualified to write this book. He is a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, a professor at Harvard Medical School, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, and a respected researcher. Harvard Medical School professors have been studying the basic elements of adult human development for more than five decades. Three separate cohorts of 824 individuals were selected as teenagers for different facts of mental and physical health and studied for the rest of their lives to observe the adult life cycle and to provide a theoretical framework for understanding how older people become fulfilled or not.

    Harvard men were studied. In 1940, men who went to Harvard were rich, privileged, white, born to American born grandparents, and expected to equal or exceed their natural ability.

    In 1939, Sheldon Glueck obtained funding to do a prospective study of 500 youth sent to reform school and 500 matched school boys who had not been in any legal trouble
    at age 14. His wife restudied the groups at ages 17, 25, and 32. The control nondeliquent group had the same social risk factors that helped doom the delinquents-had repeated two grades or more in school, had foreign born parents, lived in blighted neighborhoods, and were from families known to five or more social agencies and more than two-thirds were on welfare. Valinti inherited the study when the subjects were 40, and subjects continued to have physical examinations every five years. At age 60, all but 2 of the 456 subjects were known to be dead or alive.

    For the Terman Women Sample, Terman tried to identify most of the brightest children in his three city area. He asked teachers to indentify the brightest in each class. He learned that the unattractive and shy children tended to be overlooked so that he only captured about 80 percent of the bright children. He used the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test to identify 1 percent of the California urban school children with IOs greater than 135 to 140 most of whom were born between 1908 and 1914. Four generations of investigators have followed the Terman men and women by questionnaires about every five years and by personal interviews in 1940 and 1950. The Terman women were not asked to provide regular physical exams. However, when compared to classmates, they had better nutrition, more humor, common sense, perseverance, leadership and popularity among their classmates. By age 80, they had half the mortality of white American women in their birth cohort.

    In comparison, at age sixty-eight to seventy, the inner city men had the same physical decline as the Terman and Harvard cohorts at seventy-eight to eighty. The difference was attributed to less education, more obesity, and greater alcohol and cigarette abuse among the inner city cohort.

    These cohorts seemed to demonstrate that it is social aptitude or emotional intelligence rather than brilliance or parental social class that leads to a well-adapted old age. Vaillant concluded that individual life style choices contribute a greater role than genetics, wealth, race, or other factors in determining how happy people are in late life. He found that " It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age. Healing relationships are facilitated by a capacity for gratitude, for forgiveness.... A good marriage at age 50 predicted positive aging at 80. But surprisingly, low cholesterol levels at age 50 did not. Alcohol abuse -unrelated to unhappy childhood-consistently predicted unsuccessful aging, in part because alcoholism damaged future social supports. Learning to play and create after retirement and learning to gain younger friends as we lose older ones add more to life's enjoyment than retirement income. Objective good physical health was less important to successful aging than subjective good health.... It is all right to be ill as long as you do not feel sick" p. 13.

    This research report can help us understand that we can do little to changer our genetic make-up, but we can change our habits so we avoid alcohol and smoking, eat a healthy diet, exercise to maintain a healthy weight, develop loving relationships, and continue to learn. These are important lessons for all of us wanting to age well, but it takes a sophisticated reader, knowledgable about research and willing to wade through research findings to read this research report. The book has 12 chapters, 11 appendices, notes, acknowledgments, and an index.
    ...more info
  • They didn't even use an original title
    Skip this one and go for the original AGING WELL by Dr. Jeanne Wei, which came out a couple of years before this..., which even uses a similar jacket design! AGING WELL by Jeanne Wei is much more comprehensive and practical than this new pretender, and I learned a lot more about how to manage my life to stay young....more info