Ageing well

How long do you want to live?

According to scientist Aubrey De Grey, the first person to see their 150th birthday has already been born. Furthermore, within the next two decades, we’ll produce babies who can expect to live for 1,000 years.

Do you want to live that long? If getting old means simply prolonging life by drugs and being frail, chronically ill and dependent, then no, I wouldn’t want to live to 150, never mind 1000. I agree with Elon Musk’s view on ageing: I want my elder years to be good years.

I want to be like George Jedenoff, who celebrated his 100th birthday by skiing, or like my own parents who, at 72 and 67, have been training to reach base camp on Mount Everest. I want to be physically strong and active, mentally agile, and as curious and game to try new things as I was at six years old.

What is it about certain people, that energises them as they grow older? And what can we do to change the paradigm of simply extending life, living instead to a happy and healthy old age?

Some answers come from a major study by Harvard University, the Harvard Study of Adult Development. In this study – which may be the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done – generations of researchers tracked 724 men from childhood until well into their eighties. Their results give us a blueprint for healthy old age.

Here are the three top findings:

It’s not about wealth or fame, it’s about relationships

The study found that good relationships are the single greatest factor in keeping people happier and healthier. Social connections, it turns out – with family, friends and the community – are really good for us.

It’s not the number of friends you have, or whether you’re in a relationship. It’s the quality of your connections that matters. Living in a high conflict marriage, for example, is bad for both mental and physical health. Researchers found people in their eighties in happy relationships experienced diminished physical pain, just as the physical suffering of those who were lonely increased.

Loneliness, it turns out, kills. People who were more isolated than they wanted to be were less happy. Their health declined earlier, and so did their brain functions, and they lived shorter lives.

Stable, supportive marriages are also important. Researchers found that people in their eighties and who felt they had partners they could count on, were happier and healthier than those who did not.

So the first – and overwhelming – lesson from the Harvard study, is that good relationships protect both our bodies and our brains. In his TED talk What Makes a Good Life Robert Waldinger points out there are no easy fixes in developing and maintaining relationships: they demand reaching out, taking time, overcoming feuds, finding younger friends as you lose older ones.

Keep your mind working

The next secret to ageing well is to stay mentally active and the lesson, it seems, is it’s never too late to change or to try something new. George Vaillant, whose book Ageing Well describes the Harvard Study, says curiosity and creativity help transform older people into seemingly younger ones. Individuals who are always learning something new about the world, and who maintain a playful spirit, are making the most of the aging process.

Learning new things is a big part of this, and pursuing education is one of the factors quoted in helping people stay mentally alert.

Part of having a healthy mental outlook, the study found, is mental attitude. It also helps to be able to adjust to change and to focus on the positive – in short, to ‘turn lemons into lemonade.’

Stay physically healthy

The Harvard study found that smoking cigarettes and abusing alcohol are the two main ways you can destroy your health. Similarly, it found that those people who maintain a healthy weight live longer and are physically and mentally better off, as are those who exercise regularly.

The point is that we need to start looking after our wellbeing now, so that as we grow older we avoid the chronic disease that plagues our elderly. It’s a pretty compelling call to arms but what’s encouraging is how many factors leading to a happier old age are within our control, and how many of them keep us happier along the way.

As Woody Allen pointed out, no one gets out of this world alive. So as long as we’re here, says George Vaillant, we might as well stay as healthy and happy as possible. So here’s to a happy, healthy, curious, creative and connected future.

PS Update on my parents’ Everest plans: my mother’s just broken her patella so my sister is now going with my dad.

What’s new?

Springday’s growing! I just got back from trips to China, Hong Kong and Malaysia; we’ve employed our first account manager in Hong Kong, and on November 1 we go live in thirteen Asian countries. More about what I did and who I visited in next month’s blog…

What else is going on?

Check out some interesting reads I’ve come across in the last month:

What’s in your DNA, and what’s it worth? Increasingly, people are having their genes analysed, to learn about their ancestry and risk of disease. It’s a win-win because, with their permission, the analysing company can sell their data on for research. Question is, who should pay, and what’s the best way to handle this growing niche market?

Why we need to reexamine standing desks: we were told sitting was the new smoking, and that we needed to stand at work. What we weren’t told was that those studies were based on limited evidence, and were co-authored by people with links to sit-stand desks. Read this article for a clearer view on standing desks, and how to combine work and movement.

Breast self-exams don’t save lives: gynecologists haven’t promoted breast self-exams for years. This piece points out that not even mammograms reduce breast-cancer mortality, and tells you how to look for breast-cancer warning signs.

And talking about cancer, here’s some depressing news: alcohol increases cancer risk, and the alcohol industry’s been hiding this from us. Apparently the more you drink, no matter what, the greater the risk. Read on

If you need cheering up after the last couple of links, here’s just the thing. How about Ghana’s dancing pallbearers, who can make your funeral one to remember?