The Best Predictor of How Long You Will Live: Mastery of Stress

May 08, 2008

The Best Predictor of How Well You Are 35 years Down the Road! 

 Competency # Competency #’s 20  “Cuisines of the Long Lived”       ReferenceJournal of Behavioral Medicine Vol 20, p 1-13, 1997 

 At age twenty, I can make a pretty accurate guess to how well you will be in your 50s.  Being in my 50s right now, I’m thinking about these things and grateful that I’m in pretty good shape.  Few parts missing and not working so well, but for the most part things are okay so far. 

 So, it caught my eye when an article from the Harvard Mastery of Stress Study came out that shows data about predicting health 35 years down the road.  This is the longest running study that I can find in the literature that looks at the predictive ability of long and healthy life.  Thirty-five years is enviably long. Readers of this column will likely think I’m going to say something to the effect of waistline, or exercise, or blood sugar.  If so, that’s what I would have said and you would have been accurate in your guess.  

But that’s not what Dr. Russek and Schwartz reported on.  They looked at the Harvard Mastery of Stress study from the 1950s in which Harvard undergraduate men were extensively studied for their emotional state of mind, because they didn’t have any illnesses and were all considered to be in great shape.  And what they found should set us all to pondering. 

 The most accurate predictor of how well you will be 35 later in life is the level of loving and caring relationship you have with your mother and father.  Those who answered the question No and No to “Do you have a loving and warm relationship with your mother and father” had a 92% chance of having some midlife major illness like coronary artery disease, cancer, alcoholism hypertension.  If you had a good relationship with just one parent, mother or father, the odds were about 70%.  If you had a good relationship with both father and mother, it was 45%.  That’s half of 92%. 

 The numbers were too small to predict the effects of other friends, social environments, pets, or other measures of life stress and social support behaviors, but the authors conjecture that the intangibles are all difficult to measure.  Good sleep behavior, family dinners, social support, resources for good health habits, vacations…all may be related. This is the season of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.  Going forward, think about what a gift you can give to your parents by letting them know you appreciate the loving support you got from them.  And if it wasn’t so ideal, help define it as being loving by starting to create opportunities for relationship and support. 

 WWW.  What will work for me.  I’m a parent and a son.  It goes both ways.  My offspring are no longer children.  But I remain their biggest fan.  And I’m confident that my parents are my eternal advocates.  What a gift!  Regardless of how old we are, it’s our social networks, our loving and caring relationships might just be the best thing we have going.  

The column was written by Dr. John E. Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI. (262-784-5300)