On the nondescript third floor of a Brigham and Women's Hospital office, a row of file cabinets holds thousands of interview transcripts, family evaluations, and health and school records from a group of men who, nearly 70 years ago, signed on to be studied for the rest of their lives.
For nearly four decades, Dr. George Vaillant, a Brigham and Women's psychiatrist, has tended these files, mining them for clues to happiness and fulfillment, particularly in old age. As the longtime former leader of the Study of Adult Development, perhaps the longest-running investigation of aging ever conducted, Vaillant acknowledged his privileged position.
"It's been like watching a group of men trample down the hill in front of me," he said.
At 73, suntanned and trim, Vaillant looks like a spokesman for healthful aging. He now serves as the study's co-director and reports to work at the Brigham office, though the bulk of the work is now overseen by colleague and fellow psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Waldinger.
Vaillant speaks of his life's work warmly, grateful for the series of circumstances that led him to inherit the study in 1970 and particularly to the participants who have stayed with it since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the White House. When asked about achieving longevity, Vaillant began with this overview: "To live to 100 is genetic, and to die before 50 is genetic," he said. "Most of us die between the ages of 75 and 85, and what it comes down to then is how we live."
It is in determining which end of this spectrum individuals reach that Vaillant's research has had the greatest contribution. His hundreds of published journal articles and six books based on the study point to the benefits of long, strong marriages; avoidance of cigarettes; and hearty coping mechanisms - "making lemons out of lemonade" - in stacking the odds in one's favor.
While these findings are not particularly surprising, the way in which they were distilled - through watching men's lives unfold in real time - has commanded wide respect in his field, which tends to rely on recollections.
"It's an enormous contribution and has given us a sense of both healthy adult development and problematic development," said Dr. James Lomax, associate chairman of the department of psychiatry at Baylor University. "It's also helped us understand how healthy development is aided by the right types of attachments and that sustaining those relationships is a powerful predictor of aging well."
Though Vaillant has long been interested in the study of lives, his route to the research was somewhat accidental. Growing up in New York and Connecticut, he was fascinated at a young age by the universe and imagined that he would become a physicist. By the time he enrolled in Harvard College in 1951, though, he had settled on English and history, and even now peppers his conversation with references to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Before finishing his degree, Vaillant would shift course once again, deciding to attend medical school with the hopes of becoming a community psychiatrist. ("The world of psychiatry is filled with English and history majors who could pass the medical school prerequisites," he said.)
As a medical resident, once again at Harvard, Vaillant was working with schizophrenics when he had a breakthrough of sorts. Through studying their histories, he realized that their symptoms had dissipated over time. "It made me realize that following people for long periods of time made a difference," he said. He searched for records of former Harvard students who had suffered schizophrenic breaks in college, wanting to see how they had progressed by their 25th reunion. The university did not keep such records, but Vaillant was offered access to another study, one conceived by philanthropist William T. Grant. The study aimed to chart the adult development of men who seemed destined for success, men who had been selected as Harvard College sophomores on account of their physical and psychological fitness. Vaillant seized the opportunity to explore how people adapt to life's circumstances.
"I was a poor man's Gail Sheehy at the time," he said, referencing the author of the popular book "Passages," which has been seen as a guidebook for adulthood.
A few years after his involvement with the study began, Vaillant saved it from extinction by securing $50,000 in funding. At around the same time, he met Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, Harvard Law School criminologists who in 1939 had begun tracking city boys who had grown up in abject poverty. The Gluecks, approaching retirement, turned their study over to Vaillant.
"It was like inheriting a gold mine," he said.
In the years that followed, Vaillant would merge their study with the Grant sample. He collected questionnaires from the men every two years and health records every five, and he interviewed the men face to face roughly once a decade. Among his most striking findings was that social class seemed to diminish in importance as the men grew older, while factors such as quality of marriage and coping mechanisms played more important roles in predicting happiness and success.
Vaillant's work has yielded important finds not only in healthful aging, but also alcoholism. He is a staunch believer in Alcoholics Anonymous, based on his finding that men who attended more than 100 meetings were more likely to remain sober than those who attended only a handful. His 1983 book "The Natural History of Alcoholism" explains that alcoholism leads to depression, isolation, and family problems, rather than vice versa - a chicken-and-egg problem of the sort that can be understood only through a longitudinal study.
Today, of the original combined sample of 724 men, 115 Harvard men, and roughly 200 inner-city men are still living. The average age of the Harvard men is 87, and the average age of the inner-city sample is almost 80. Along with Waldinger, the third-generation of study leadership, Vaillant is exploring questions that include how unhappy marriages affect aging. He intends to remain involved in the study until he is no longer able to.
"Age is a one-way street; you don't get any better with the passage of time," he said.
Yet after having followed the men's lives for so long, he would like to know how the stories will end. He compared the study with a popular book series. "Every other year a Harry Potter book comes out and people look forward to it. It's sad that J.K. Rowling kept it going for only seven years."