There is a long term project, one not actually associated with aging, called the Long Now. The goal of this group is to put human society in perspective by taking the long view. To this end one of their major projects is a giant, mechanical clock designed to run for 10,000 years. It is truly a marvel of sustainable engineering. See their web site below. The reason for making a clock that is intended to run for millennia is to help people keep the long view of the future in mind. Proponents of Zen point to the value of being in the present moment, but the future of our earth depends on keeping an eye on the long term.
The same can be said of human aging. If we wish to live long healthy and productive lives we need to know what behaviors to embrace and which ones to avoid. Identifying what those behaviors are has been a difficult task. Sherlock Holmes said, in the novel The Sign of the Four, “… while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant…”
Putting time into perspective. No suggestions for living a long life can have any meaning unless they can be tested against the time span of a life. Real knowledge of the behaviors that promote a long life requires studying people from birth to death and then seeing what set of lifetime behaviors resulted in the longest lives. Genetics is also important here as well. The United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) has conducted a long term study of aging since 1958. The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA) has had 3200 participants since inception, and 1300 men and women are currently in the study. NIH summarizes the study so far with the following two generalizations: 1) Aging is not disease. 2) No one set of behaviors leading to a long healthy life can be defined.
“There is still much to learn, but so far two major conclusions can be drawn from BLSA data. First, ‘normal’ aging cannot be distinguished from disease. Although people’s bodies change and can in some ways decline over time, these changes do not inevitably lead to diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, or dementia.
“Second, no single, chronological timetable of human aging exists. We all age differently. In fact, in terms of change and development, there are more differences among older people than among younger people. Genetics, lifestyle, and disease processes affect the rate of aging between and within all individuals.”
Sherlock Holmes appears to be justified in his 19th century conclusion.
Another long term study has made some specific recommendations. This longitudinal study began in 1938 with initially 268 Harvard graduates and has continued until now and women have been added. This study has a restricted sample because Harvard graduates are from a limited demographic and initially were all men, including John F. Kennedy.
George Vaillant, study leader from 1972 until 2004, “wrote that six factors predicted healthy aging for the Harvard men: physical activity, absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, and enjoying both a healthy weight and a stable marriage. For the inner-city men, education was an additional factor. “The more education the inner city men obtained,” wrote Vaillant, ‘the more likely they were to stop smoking, eat sensibly, and use alcohol in moderation.’
“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment,” said Vaillant. “But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”
As for me. I am drinking an empirically derived amount of water daily but only one Guinness a day, working with my horse five days a week, walking 10,000 steps most every day and publishing my first novel. How’s that working out? Only time will tell.
This column will be a part of the upcoming conference “Healthful Aging Through Lifelong Learning.”
The Ageless Mind Project is pleased to announce the Healthful Aging Through Learning Conference in collaboration with its virtual partner, Whole Brain Health. The conference will be held from Monday, May 15 through May 21, 2023 and is designed to: 1) Present science-based insights into the aging process. 2) Offer proactive, holistic ways to achieve well-being. 3) Give participants first hand experience of new and innovative tools, environments, and approaches to healthful aging.
For more information see the link below:
The Healthful Aging through Lifelong Learning Conference
- The 10,000 Thousand Year Clock, The Long Now Foundation.
- The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS).
- Good genes are nice, but joy is better, The Harvard Gazette.
- A Review of Selected Longitudinal Studies on Aging: Past Findings and Future Directions, Damian C. Stanziano et al, J Am Geriatr Soc. 2010 Oct; 58(Suppl 2): S292–S297.
- Longitudinal Study of Aging (LSOA), National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
- Center for the Study of Aging, RAND Corporation.