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Men study continues
What makes people successful and happy? Harvard criminology professor Sheldon Glueck and his wife, Eleanor, a Boston social worker, set out to answer this question in the 1940s when they began to shadow hundreds of boys from impoverished city neighborhoods.
The Gluecks followed the boys into adulthood, studying their relationships, health, and successes and failures with lengthy interviews and follow-up exams. Their study produced groundbreaking findings on delinquency and criminology. The Gluecks passed the study on to George Valliant, a Harvard psychiatry professor, who continued to observe these men, including their bouts with alcoholism and the fate of their marriages. Valliant, in the 1970s, also took over another long-term study of Harvard College men from the class of 1940. His studies have resulted in numerous scientific articles and several books, most recently, “Aging Well.”
Now these studies are coming together under the BWH shield as Robert Waldinger, MD, Psychiatry, is poised to assume the reigns from Valliant and examine the 50-year-plus marriages these men have enjoyed, with the aim of examining links between security of attachment to one's spouse and physical health. “We're hoping to find what aspects from someone's earlier life predict good relationships in late life,” said Waldinger.
“Just about every person who studies psychiatry or psychology reads about this study,” Waldinger said. Of the 456 original Glueck men, an impressive 171 remain active participants in the study at age 78. Likewise, 125 of the 268 members of Harvard's Class of 1940 (now age 85) have continued in the study.
The marriage study, the latest phase of what is believed to be the longest-ever study of adult development, is funded through a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health awarded in February 2003. That's when Valliant, Waldinger and project researchers began analyzing the marriages of the Harvard men, and, for the first time, included their wives. Waldinger notes that, when researchers approached the wives about participating, many said, “It's about time.”
The marriage study team has been videotaping interviews with about 50 of the Harvard men and their spouses in their homes, and then they followed the home visits with daily, independent phone interviews for eight days. “We want to understand what they do on a daily basis, how they feel physically and emotionally, their day-to-day quality of life,” Waldinger said. Telephone interviews are also conducted with men who are not married.
To date the findings have been fascinating, he said. “We are beginning to observe how deep and special marriage becomes late in life, and our findings may offer a very new picture of what it means to be husband and wife in the last years of life.”
Waldinger is adding genetics to the study, collecting DNA samples from the subjects, and he has hopes of studying subsequent generations. “The possibilities for studying relationship functioning across generations are particularly exciting,” he said.