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Longer-lasting Harvardians

July-August 2004

In his foreward to the anniversary report of the class of 1954, class secretary John T. Bethell made some upbeat observations about longevity. The good news, he wrote, "is that so many of us are still here to stand up and be counted. At the start of 2004, the Alumni Records Office listed 964 'active' members of a class that originally numbered 1,221. A survival rate of 80 percent, 50 years out, is almost epochal.

"Fifty-year survival rates among Harvard College classes have been on the rise for almost a century, and we're at the leading edge," Bethell is pleased to report. "Let's look at some of the numbers. Out of 91 graduates in the class of 1854, only 31 were alive 50 years later. The class of 1904, holding its fiftieth reunion when our class was graduating, then had 353 living members: a 47 percent survival rate. Of the class of '29 — our fathers' generation — 630 members, or 62 percent, were alive at the fiftieth. A quarter-century later, our showing is 18 percentage points better."

All of this long-lastingness has occurred despite the fact that one in three of the men of '54 reports in the class questionnaire that he has had a life-threatening accident or illness. Moreover, classmates judge George W. Bush the worst president to have served since their College days (with Richard Nixon in second place), which must be stressful. Fifty-two percent are Democrats, 40 percent Republicans.

What's the prescription for persistence? Ninety percent of the class take medications on a regular basis, with the mean number of pills per day being three. That helps, but staying active may also be part of it: more than half the class still works full or part time, and more than a third of those who have retired work as volunteers. Many classmates say they consistently try to eat foods that are low in fat (58 percent) or cholesterol (49 percent). As for exercise, more than a quarter of respondents do it for at least 20 minutes every day, and 53 percent do it several times a week. Walking is the most popular workout (56 percent), but classmates mentioned a variety of healthful activities they go for, such as "lawn-mowing," "typing," and "sex." Fewer than 5 percent of the class smoke. And 46 percent say they drink no hard liquor at all.