How Not to Die, According to Harvard Researchers

Jason Hoffman illustration for Thrillist health story
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Want to live forever? Science hasn't quite cracked that one yet, but a group of Harvard researchers has figured out how to give you the best possible shot.

For 75 years (and counting), researchers have been following the same 600+ people to determine what makes a long, healthy, and happy life. These studies, titled the Grant and Glueck Studies, are two of the longest longitudinal studies on health and happiness ever conducted, containing tens of thousands of pages of participant questionnaires, health records, brain scans, blood samples, journals, interviews with friends and families, and, of course, scrotum measurements.

With study participants now in their 80s and 90s, and many having passed away, the Harvard researchers have identified seven key factors to living as long as you possibly can (while not being a miserable prick the whole time). Sure, "seven secrets to a long life" might sound like a garbage "health" blog post. But unlike most "secrets," these have 75 years of Harvard research to back them up, so you might want to pay attention.

Keep learning

You might feel like studying for that econ exam is giving you a heart attack. It's actually having the opposite effect. On average, the mortality rates of the inner-city participants (Glueck) at ages 68 to 70 resembled the Harvard participants (Grant) at 78 to 80. The exceptions? Glueck participants who graduated from college (only about 6%) were just as healthy as the Grant participants, even in old age. Meaning within these studies, a lack of education could shorten someone's life by as much as 10 years.

Multiple studies have confirmed the protective health benefits of education. And if you're way beyond your college years, continued intellectual stimulation at any age can prevent your mind and body from deteriorating. So yes, Pink Floyd, when it comes to aging well, you're absolutely right: we don't need no education (think about it). 

Smoker breaking cigarette

Don't smoke

It's not like you're completely unaware of the laundry list of smoking risks, so there's no point in dwelling on it. Aside from alcohol abuse (we'll get there soon, don't worry), smoking cigarettes was the single greatest contributor to disease and early death for participants of both studies.

This might not mean much if it weren't for the fact that during the 1950s, Philip Morris (aka America's No. 1 tobacco company) was a major funder for the Grant Study. During those years, the participant questionnaires contained questions like, "If you never smoked, why didn't you?" So, you know: just a wee bit leading/condescending for non-smokers. Yet despite this sly subliminal marketing and funding power, the study's leads couldn't ignore the consequences and fatalities of smoking. Needless to say, Philip Morris hasn't been a study sponsor for a while now…

Don't abuse alcohol

Just passing along the findings, so don't shoot the messenger! For the participants of both studies, alcohol abuse extends well beyond just the health consequences (note: moderation ≠ abuse). And that's saying something considering alcohol abuse is the No. 1 contributor to disease and early death among participants. 

In recent years, study researchers discovered that alcoholism was involved in 57% of all participant divorces. You might assume that bad relationships lead to drinking, but at least in this not-so-tiny study, very few bad marriages actually led to alcoholism. Instead, participants developed an alcohol problem, which then sabotaged their relationships. The Grant Study's lead investigator, Dr. George Vaillant, even concluded that, "alcohol is a cause, rather than a result, of life's problems." Just a few of these problems being depression and neurosis, which tended to follow alcohol abuse, rather than precede it. 

And as if depression weren't depressing enough, for participants diagnosed with depression at age 50, a whopping 70% were either dead or terminally ill by age 63. So if you like the idea of being that 97-year-old badass dancing in the streets, maybe don't finish that six-pack in one sitting (says the study! It's not me! Promise!).

Man eating salad at work
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Get some exercise and maintain a healthy weight

We'll combine these two factors for (hopefully) obvious reasons. Now prepare for your brain to hurt. In his book about the Grant Study, titled Triumphs of Experience, Dr. Vaillant challenges one of our most commonly held conceptions: exercise causes good health. He asks instead, "might it not be the other way around?" Among the study samples, exercise at age 60 correlated more highly with health at age 55 than with health at 80 (we'll give you a minute to reread that a few times). Furthermore, health at the ages of 50 and 60 significantly predicted exercise (not health) at age 80.

In other words, health predicted exercise at every age, but exercise didn't predict health in old age. Dr. Vaillant concludes that healthy people exercise, but not necessarily that exercise makes people healthy. Which may seem crazy, but imagine being a 60-year-old with pain in every joint… would you want to go for a jog, or even a walk? 

The same goes for cholesterol. While maintaining healthy cholesterol levels early in life may impact vital signs at age 50, the study found that cholesterol at age 50 has absolutely no impact on health and happiness at age 80.

So why did he conclude that exercise and healthy weight are two of the major factors for long life and happiness? Well, that's the beauty of longitudinal studies. While the researchers may not know exactly why "some" exercise and maintaining a healthy weight help people live longer, the research shows that they do! So just make it happen. 

Adapt to shitty life circumstances

Life is going to suck (a lot), and your response to said suckiness is what makes or breaks you. Now that study participants are well into their 80s and 90s, researchers have classified responses to pain -- "defense mechanisms" -- into four categories that stretch across a lifetime: psychotic, immature, neurotic, and mature. The ultimate goal is to evolve from psychotic (self-absorbed, power-hungry) to mature (altruistic, healthy emotional outlets) without too many hiccups along the way.

The studies discovered that mature adaptation was by far the most powerful predictor of "successful" aging across a lifetime. Having the defense mechanisms of a 9-year-old at age 60 doesn't bode too well, unless you're running for president, maybe. Poor coping skills generally lead to alcoholism, smoking, depression, unhealthy habits, and all the other usual suspects trying to kill you. Life gives everyone lemons, but it's the people that squeeze the hell out of those lemons that end up happier and healthier into their 80s, 90s, and beyond.

Friends enjoying a meal together

When it comes down to it, it's all about relationships

Dr. Vaillant headed the Grant Study for more than 42 years, and still consults on it to this day. The man is an intellectual giant with a lifetime dedicated to research, data, and rigorous academic standards. So when asked what he learned from over 40 years leading the Grant Study, his answer was a little unexpected: "The only things that really matter in life are your relationships to other people." Sometime later, when asked again for a key takeaway from the study, Vaillant summed it up in five simple words: "Happiness is love. Full stop."

And if that's not quite Beatles-circa-1967 enough for you, the current study director, Dr. Robert Waldinger, has taken it a step further. In a recent TED Talk, Dr. Waldinger concluded, "Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period." So after over 75 years and $25 million spent on these studies, the moral of the story is something you'd find on the bumper sticker of a VW Beetle? Yuuuup.

Not only did participants of both studies who reported having close relationships tend to be happier and healthier, but they also lived longer. Positive relationships were found to have a protective benefit, both physically and mentally, while bad relationships led to earlier physical and mental decline. Positive relationships can actually fend off perceived physical pain. Nightmarish relationships have a way of magnifying the pain. So don't start swiping right just for the hell of it. The studies found that being single is much better for you than being in a bad relationship (so put the phone down!).

If you live in America, there's a good chance that you've felt the pressure to lean in to your career, to be ambitious, to strive for more. These studies say we're leaning in the wrong direction. After studying 75 years of records on over 600 people, Dr. Waldinger has concluded, "those people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community." Full stop. Period. Exclamation point.

Together, these seven factors are your best shot at sticking around for a while, and being happy about it. And if you're thinking you can just get by on being phenomenal at just one or two of these factors, then Grant and Glueck have some bad news for you. Participants who had only three factors at age 50 were three times as likely to be dead at 80 as those with four or more. So you may be the soberest gym bunny on the planet, but if you haven't opened a book or called your sister in a while, all your efforts might be in vain. It's just science. Now go give someone a hug.

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Nicholas Knock is a freelance writer for Thrillist who loves drinking, so he's really hoping his good relationships will balance it out. You can follow him on Twitter: @nickaknock.