A wise man once told me that “everyone needs a little love occasionally”. At the time, he was trying to console his young son through a difficult break-up, but that statement has never been more true.
An article from a few months ago re-surfaced on the Facebooks this week. It tells us that the key to living a long and healthy life requires just one thing. Love.
This story comes from a study of 268 male Harvard graduates who were followed for 75 years, many of them well into their 90s. The final conclusions of the study were published as a book. In addition to this book, the Study of Adult Development, as it was officially known, produced a number of peer-reviewed journal articles. Arguably, the most important of these articles was published around a decade ago.
It set out the seven key factors, largely under our own control, which will make sure you live to be “happy and well” rather than “sad and sick”:
- Being a non-smoker (or stopping smoking earlier).
- Avoiding an alcohol-abuse problem.
- Having “mature” emotional coping strategies.
- Having a stable marriage, particularly before the age of 50.
- Not being underweight or obese.
- Partaking in regular exercise.
- Maximising your level of education.
It isn’t surprising that smoking and alcohol were the most common cause of death. We also know that being a healthy weight and partaking in exercise will reduce your risk of the most common Western diseases.
It is also worth mentioning that these key factors are not just relevant to white men that went to Harvard. Professor Vaillant, the longest-standing director of the study, also looked at underprivileged inner-city school boys with a “below-average IQ” over the same period of time, and has since published a book discussing a similar study in women. Though researched in quite small groups, all of his work examines every possible angle over many decades, from childhood memories and psychosocial factors to physical health and disability. All of it points to the same thing:
“Love is key to a happy and fulfilling life.”
If that sounds a little trite, let me suggest that your subjective perception of how happy you are is probably all that really matters.
This is not something that we’re just finding out now. It probably seems obvious, but marital problems and the lack of close relationships are two major risk factors for depression, which is then associated with a number of physical health problems. This is largely due to a combination of unhealthy eating and sleeping patterns, a more sedentary lifestyle, substance abuse problems, and the fact that many psychotropic medications can cause weight gain and diabetes. However, there is also increasing evidence that a chronically “stressed” body ages faster. This week, a study of 2,000 patients with major depressive disorder showed that the cells of those currently experiencing an episode of depression appeared 4-6 years “older” than they should.
This aging process increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, dementia and early death.
With that in mind, what does the Study of Adult Development tell us about love?
Regardless of career success, money earned or physical health, loving relationships, both as a child and during marriage, were the greatest predictor of contentment in later life.
Once you’re over 70, your social class, income and even your cholesterol level make almost no difference to how long you’ll live or how happy you are during your remaining years. However, the hard work needed to build these relationships has to happen now. Those that had strong social support at age 70 were almost exclusively the men who had met six or seven of the criteria listed above whilst growing up.
In particular, it is the relationship habits that we form before the age of 50 that seem to be key.
If that’s not enough for you, those who scored highest in measures of “warm relationships”, including those with their parents, also:
- Earned more money. A lot more money - $141,000 per year during peak earning.
- Had greater enjoyment and “life satisfaction” when older.
- Had lower stress levels.
- Had a reduced risk of dementia and adult anxiety.
Mature adaptive defences were also an important predictor of “successful aging”. In this context, mature defences largely constituted humour and altruism. That is, when things start to go to shit (which they will at some point), you can still laugh and be charitable towards others. Men who showed these responses between the ages of 20 and 50 were six times more likely to be happy and well at the age of 75 compared to those prone to hypochondriasis and passive aggression.
The studies also suggest that being more open-minded gets you more action! The most “liberal” men had healthy sex lives into their 80s, whereas the most conservative study participants ceased to sexually active before they reached 70.
If that doesn’t get you out there making friends, I don’t know what will…
This seems the perfect time to talk about an activity that could help us tick off three or four of those bullet points above, in one go. Sex. A study published a couple of weeks ago examined the age-old question of whether sex can be considered significant exercise (thanks to Ariane for sending it my way).
In the first sentence of the paper, the authors tell us: “health professionals are starting to realize that sexual activity in humans could be an important aspect on their overall health and quality of life”. How insightful!
However, this study was fairly novel in that the investigators used a simple arm sensor to measure movement, skin responses and heat. This meant that couples could perform their once-weekly “sexual activity” at home. This is in contrast to previous laboratory-based studies, where energy expenditure during sexual activity was measured by a “mask placed on the mouth….as well as electrodes, cuffs and cables”. Some people have all the fun.
The study then compared sexual energy expenditure to a 30-minute treadmill test at 65% of maximum heart rate. They found:
- Men expend around 100 calories during sex. In women this is around 70 calories.
- Over an average of 25 minutes (including foreplay), sex amounted to “moderate” intensity exercise, similar to brisk walking.
- 81% had a high level of personal pleasure after sex.
- 98% felt the sex was more enjoyable than the treadmill test…
Even though couples may have initially “acted up” for the study (energy expenditure per session decreased as the study went on), a session of “sexual activity” was up to 66% of the intensity of the treadmill session, and more fun. For most people.
The authors conclude that “sexual activity may potentially be considered, at times, as a significant exercise”. Though not a certainty, I think it’s a risk worth taking.
The advice to “love” more may seem a little ethereal, or maybe even a little daunting. However, there is hope for all of us. In a recent interview, Dr. Vaillant made a point of saying that those who did not do well in mid-life were often very happy in old-age. Here are a few ideas to help you enjoy the journey:
- Call your parents more often.
- Stop smoking and drink in moderation.
- Make new friends and nurture relationships, even after retirement.
- Stay creative and positive in the face of adversity.
- Keep a healthy weight through physical activity.
- Have sex. 98% of you will even enjoy it.
After all, everyone needs a little love...
1. Vaillant GE, Mukamal K. Successful aging. Am J Psychiatry. 2001 Jun;158(6):839-47.
5. Cassano P, Fava M. Depression and public health: an overview. J Psychosom Res. 2002 Oct;53(4):849-57.
6. Verhoeven JE, Révész D, Epel ES, Lin J, Wolkowitz OM, Penninx BW. Major depressive disorder and accelerated cellular aging: results from a large psychiatric cohort study. Mol Psychiatry. 2013 Nov 12. [Epub ahead of print]
7. Frapper J, Toubin I, Levy J J. Energy Expenditure during Sexual Activity in Young Healthy Couples. PLOS One. Published online October 29 2013