No one envisions their final days confined to a wheelchair while eating applesauce and oatmeal for dinner. We all hope to achieve a good quality of life to sustain us until our last breath, but must also accept that certain factors are out of our control. Your lifelong habits contribute greatly to your overall well-being throughout the aging process. And it’s never too late to change bad habits that affect the quality of your life, such as over-eating or smoking. Evaluate problem areas to help unlock the why and how you react predictably to certain factors in life and to provide answers that can initiate change.
Since 1937, a study has tracked 237 students at Harvard University and 332 socially disadvantaged youths from inner-city Boston through health, disease, and death in the quest to discover what keeps us happy and well.
“The study shows that successful aging is not an oxymoron,” says George Vaillant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the study for the past 35 years. “You can add life to your years instead of just years to your life.”
Throughout the long-term study, Vaillant and his colleagues at Harvard University Health Services focused on seven predictors which are under our personal control, and if managed properly by the age 50, can lead to good physical and mental health through our 80’s and beyond. Obvious determining factors require us to quit smoking, exercise regularly, and not abuse alcohol. Some not-so-obvious indicators linked secondary education to overall good health and happiness, with money and social prestige trailing behind.
“Despite great differences in parental social class, college-tested intelligence, current income and job status, the health decline of college-educated, inner-city men was no more rapid than that of Harvard College graduates,” Vaillant points out.
Other predicators in the study included marriage stability, exercise, weight management, and coping mechanisms. According to the study, uncontrollable factors that affect aging include family cohesion, genetic traits, and childhood temperament.
What I find interesting about this long-term study is two of the factors that were classified as uncontrollable. The first is ‘family cohesion’. What if you could affect a positive change toward your own family’s ability and willingness to communicate more often, which also includes their emotional, and other types of support? Consider the variables that have affected your family’s cohesion, such as the relocation of close relatives to another city or state, and make it your mission to re-establish open lines of communication. It may require organizing a long-overdue family reunion or establishing and promoting a family-centered social media site with a format to encourage instant chats, photos sharing and plans for future family gatherings. The point is – you can make a positive difference in your family’s cohesion, and in the process, improve the quality of life for yourself and other family members.
The second uncontrollable factor that is mentioned is ‘genetic traits’. Of course, your DNA is your genetic roadmap that is already set in motion from the moment of birth. What if you could learn enough through the study of your own DNA to increase your life by identifying a hereditary marker for certain diseases, such as hypertension or heart disease? At the time the Harvard study began in 1937, discussions about DNA and genetics were not on the table. But times have changed and on-going research findings from The Human Genome Project have been ground-breaking in proving mankind now has the ability to identify genetic markers and in doing so may be able to keep you from falling into previously hidden pitfalls that are a part of your genetic path. Scientists are perfecting the science of epigenetics, which is proving that each gene has a layer that functions like ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches and we now know it is possible to change the expression of our genes – and particularly those that are indicators of diseases and malfunctions in our bodies. Although these types of tests haven’t become mainstream yet, you should expect to see more of this research affecting the quality of your preventative healthcare in the not-to-distant future to improve your genetic disposition toward a specific disease before it becomes a factor in your health, setting you on a preventative maintenance course that adds years to your time clock.
To make sure quality goes hand-in-hand with the quantity of your golden years, keep things interesting by changing up your routine from time to time. If you find your weeks running together like an automatic wash, rinse and repeat cycle, it’s time to switch to the manual cycle and change the itinerary. A chronically sedentary life symbolizes resting on your laurels, and can be the fast track to early death. Include physical activity in your daily life to enhance blood flow to the brain and crank up your fun factor.
Even if you are restricted by limited mobility, there are some activities and destinations that are well-equipped to handle accessibility issues, so you can still enjoy a quality life. Don’t allow immobility or other physical restrictions to become a crutch that hinders your options for enjoyment. Gravitate toward places that accept and solve these challenges to help overcome the stigma of physical limitations. Family-oriented venues, such as Disney theme parks offer services for patrons with disabilities that can range from blindness, hearing, cognitive and mobility impairment. As mainstream America recognizes the value of welcoming the mass numbers of our aging population along with their families into the recreational mix, theme parks and family-oriented destinations cater to mobility-challenged patrons by providing streamlined access to attractions and rides, which also extends the perk of shorter waiting lines to accompanying family members. Share your family’s enthusiasm for excitement by joining in the adventure. It doesn’t matter if the family vacation is a Caribbean cruise or a trip to the Smithsonian Museum, there’s really no reason not to participate.
In the big picture, it’s the quality of our days that defines our life. Resignation has no place in a happy heart. Instead, adopt a can-do attitude as you complete everyday tasks. Reach for the next milestone to keep clear sight of a high-quality life with long-term goals.