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Longevity’s twin secrets: One we seek to possess; the other we can only give

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Posted: Saturday, December 15, 2012 12:00 am

FAIRBANKS — My Aunt Dorothy is 93 and still going strong. She’s still “sharp as a tack.”

What is her secret? George Vaillant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has figured out how you can increase your chances of living into your nineties and staying mentally sharp.

What counts is not only how you treat your mind and body, but also, surprisingly, the type of childhood you have had.

These findings come from the Grant Study, which has followed the physical and mental health of 200 Harvard men for close to 75 years.

Sure, Harvard men aren’t representative of all of us but Vaillant’s work is impressive. I was astonished to learn that he had actually traveled from Boston to Australia to interview one man who he had trouble contacting.

Cherished children

The quality of a person’s childhood turned out to be an important predictor of an early death. Of those with the bleakest childhoods, 35 percent were dead or chronically ill in their 50s, compared to only 11 percent of the cherished children.

“By the time the men were into their seventh decade, children with bleak childhoods were eight times more likely as the cherished children to have experienced a major depression,” Vaillant found. Children with bleak childhoods were also far more likely to be friendless at the end of life.

A surprising finding was that lack of warm relationships with their mothers in childhood was significantly related to dementia. Of the 115 men who survived to 80 and lacked a strong relationship with their mother, a third were suffering from dementia, compared to just 11 percent of those with warm relationships with their mothers.

Possibly the explanation is that the men who were cherished as children were working in intellectual activities. These men were more apt to be working at age 70 and to have higher incomes in late life.

Warm relationships with their fathers were also important but had different effects. The men with poor relationships with their fathers were more likely to have bad marriages and were far less satisfied with their lives at age 75.

Physical health

Smoking, alcohol abuse, hypertension, obesity and Type 2 diabetes strongly predicted both dementia and shorter lives. Of men who had several of these problems, 76 percent were dead or chronically ill by their 80th year. Of those without these problems, just 44 percent were dead or chronically ill by their 80th year — a huge difference.

At 90, many men without such problems were still alive. Of the men with some of these problems, only one survived until 90.

Moreover, those who were still alive at 90 were enjoying good health. More than half of them had not stopped or reduced a major activity, could still handle their suitcases in airports, could still drive or use public transportation and needed no help with personal care. 

“At the end of the day, good self-care before age 50 — stopping smoking, joining AA, watching their weight and controlling their blood pressure — made all the difference in how healthy men were at 80 or 90,” Vaillant concluded.

These risk factors prove to be important in other studies of longevity, not only in Harvard men but also in inner-city men and women.

Some of the factors that lead to longevity and a healthy old age we can control, like watching our weight and avoiding alcohol abuse. Others we can’t control, like the quality of our childhoods.

But we can control how we raise our own children. When we raise “cherished children,” we vastly increase their chances of living to a healthy old age. 

What we can’t do for ourselves, we can do for our children.

Judith Kleinfeld, a longtime columnist for the Daily News-Miner, holds a doctorate from Harvard and is a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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