Monday, April 29, 2013

On golden pond

While we are with the May 9 issue of NYRB and women of a certain age, let me take note of a review/essay by Marcia Angell.

Angell is a physician, a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, and another regular contributor to NYRB, often in the role of scourge to Big Pharm. She is also almost my age (mid-70s), which I mention only because of the subject of her current essay: What is the "good life" as observed from its final chapters?

The book under review is George Vaillant's Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Vaillant was for more than three decades director of a study begun at Harvard in 1938, to follow the lives of 268 Harvard sophomores of classes 1939 through 1944, selected from the best and brightest, to determine what early traits best predict a successful life. The surviving subjects are now in their nineties.

As Angell points out, the initial selection of subjects ("best and brightest" Harvard men) undermines the relevance of the study for the rest of us. Also, there is the thorny problem of what constitutes "success" or "the good life." In this regard, Vaillant uses ten indicators, including being listed in Who's Who, above-average income, and happy marriage.

Angell picks apart the study on methodological grounds, but she is clearly interested in the question of what is "the good life" and what early factors are most likely to help us get there. What everyone seems to agree on is that being affluent and well-educated are the best possible ensurers of good health and longevity.

I was both amused and depressed by Angell's throwaway speculation that "old age takes many men almost by surprise, it sneaks up on them, and is all the more disturbing for that…[whereas] women are all too aware of aging, starting with their first gray hair or wrinkle."

I didn't learn much of universal relevance from the Harvard study, as recounted by Angell (love is good, alcohol is bad). I did enjoy her assessment of her own sources of contentment and anxiety at age 74. She doesn't like getting old (who does?), but finds an offsetting advantage in "a sharper sense of what is important in life." She says she is less interested in maintaining her professional profile, and looking forward to learning Italian and taking a course in astronomy. I have no doubt that if she keeps her health, like Alison Lurie, she'll still be writing for the NYRB at age 86.