A group of people gather at a kitchen table to celebrate a birthday.
Positive relationships are essential to an individual’s personal health, according to a long-running Harvard study. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon or rocket scientist to know that people in good relationships are happy.

But what may not be known is that satisfying relationships also keep people healthier, particularly individuals who are older than 50.

That’s the conclusion of the now classic Harvard Study of Adult Development.

Researchers began the study in 1938 and it’s still ongoing. It continues to release highly relevant findings.

“It’s one of the most comprehensive studies of emotional well-being in history,” said Lyndsay K. Volpe-Bertram, PsyD, section chief of psychology at Spectrum Health. “It’s certainly got some longevity.”

Study of generations

Dr. Volpe-Bertram said the study started with 268 Harvard sophomores, all males.

As of 2017, 19 people from the original study were still alive.

In 1970, researchers added 456 inner-city youths, predominately male. Over the past 10 years, researchers began adding the wives and children of the original group.

Today, about 2,000 people are associated with the study, Dr. Volpe-Bertram said.

The results have been rather consistent, she said. She pointed to the conclusions made by Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, the fourth director of the study, in a video lecture.

Bottom line: Good relationships keep people happier and healthier.

In the video, Waldinger outlines several lessons learned from the study. One is that social connections are good—and loneliness can kill.

“The sad fact is, at any time, one in five Americans report they are lonely,” he said.

And it’s not the number of friends you have, but the quality of your close relationships, he said.

Waldinger also said high-conflict marriages without much affection are bad. The optimal situation is for people to live in good, warm relationships.

In reference to the study group, Waldinger said “… it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old, but how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were healthiest at age 80.”

He concluded: “Good relationship don’t just protect our bodies but also our brains. The people in relationships who feel they can count on someone, those people’s memories stay sharper longer.”

New factor: Technology

As the study continues, researchers will have to consider the impact of social media. It’s an area that wasn’t around when the research started, but it’s going to have to be included now, Dr. Volpe-Bertram said.

“We don’t fully understand how relationships are impacted by social media,” she said. “In the meantime, we should look at (social media) as a tool that could help facilitate relationships—but it’s not a replacement for face-to-face closeness we get with others.”

Researchers will have to monitor changes in technology to determine the effects on relationships, Dr. Volpe-Bertram said.

“We know that good relationships are about quality and connection,” she said. “Are they going to be with you through the worst of it? Dr. Waldinger pointed out that even people who argued and bickered still were happy, as long as they knew the other person would be there to support them at the end of the day.”

The study applies to her work at Spectrum Health, Dr. Volpe-Bertram said.

“I think people who are happier, who function better in their lives and have better success in managing their mental health are the people who have closer, supportive relationships,” she said. “It’s important to make sure that our patients’ physical and mental health are in a good place, and relationships are a key part of that.”