Tending to Relationships

Tending to relationships is as important as watching cholesterol

An 80-year-old longitudinal study of men, originally Harvard undergrads in the late 1930’s, looks at the determinants of good health, and has some surprising findings.  Men who, in their 50’s felt “satisfaction” with their relationships with family, friends, and community had better overall health in the subsequent decades of life.  Blood cholesterol levels at age 50 were not as good a predictor of health at age 80.

In addition to well-rounded relationships with a community of friends, a stable marriage was also found to be a strong predictor of healthy aging.  A strong marriage doesn’t mean the partners never fight, it means that each one knows that they can depend on the other when the going gets tough.  People in this kind of a marriage relationship experienced less mental deterioration with age and less loss of memory function.

Among six factors identified as predictive of healthy aging, several are familiar: physical activity, no smoking, absence of alcohol abuse, a healthy weight, and a happy marriage.  The sixth is one we don’t hear about so much, but maybe we should: “having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs.”  Lacking such a “mature mechanism” people may be more tossed about by disappointment and frustration, and be easily roused to explosions of temper.  In this instance, we are not talking about mood disorders, which affect how one feels, but rather about the strategies one develops to deal with the moods, something that MoodSurfing frequently considers.

Loneliness has also been identified as a public health emergency by the American Medical Association, a finding bolstered by the Harvard study’s results on the importance of strong relationships.  We all need to be reminded to tend our circle of relationships just as persistently as we remind ourselves to exercise and watch our diet.

Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who joined the Harvard study as a researcher in 1966, writes: “When the study began [in 1939], nobody cared about empathy or attachment, but the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”