People who have “better relationships” with others can help predict the health of their bodies and their brains throughout their lives, according to Harvard researchers who studied people from adolescence to old age.
Scientists in the longest study of happiness ever conducted didn’t believe these findings at first, Harvard’s Robert Waldinger told the Herald.
Instead of someone’s cholesterol levels or blood pressure at age 50 predicting how they would age, researchers were shocked to learn that the people who stayed healthy and lived the longest were those who had the warmest relationships.
“It was the big surprise. We thought, ‘How can this be?’ so we kept testing in the study,” said Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has been following two groups of men for the past 85 years to identify psychosocial predictors of healthy aging.
“We continue to find that better relationships not only keep you happy, but also help predict that you are less likely to get coronary artery disease, type 2 diabetes and arthritis, and that you are more likely to live longer,” he added.
The key is having good-quality relationships — whether that be with family, romantic partners, friends, colleagues, training buddies or book club members, researchers found.
“This is something that people can really do: you can pay more attention to your relationships,” Waldinger said.The two groups of men in the Harvard Study of Adult Development included 268 Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939 to 1944 and 456 men who grew up in Boston neighborhoods including Southie, Dorchester and the North End. President John F. Kennedy was part of the Harvard cohort for the study.
Of the 724 people in the study’s first generation, about 40 people remain alive.
Every two years, the men completed questionnaires about their physical and mental health, marital quality, career or retirement, and many other aspects of their lives. Every five years, health information was collected from the men to assess their physical health. In addition, the researchers interviewed the men to get more detailed information about their relationships, careers and adapting to aging.
Researchers have found that good quality relationships relieve stress and that those who are more lonely face chronic stress and have higher levels of stress hormones circulating in their bodies.
“Those who are more isolated and less connected have higher levels of inflammation throughout the body, and this gradually destroys the body’s systems,” Waldinger said.
Waldinger’s book on the study, co-written with the study’s associate director Marc Schulz, was recently released. The book entitled “The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness” made the New York Times bestseller list.