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How Milestone Birthdays Make You Healthier

Shannon Harvey

I have just returned from a glorious holiday spent with my in-law family. Nineteen Harveys aged 2 to 72 came together for a weekend of games, walks, shared meals and spontaneous congregations in the ‘cake corner’ of the hotel coffee shop. We were there for my mother-in-law, Alice’s 70th birthday, a major milestone for a woman who is at the heart of the Harveys and one we wanted to come together to celebrate.   Before the gathering we had secretly gone through decades of photographs that represent Alice’s life and compiled them into a book that we had published as a gift. As we sat with her going through the photos and reading the snippets people had contributed, Alice flowed with stories from her past and reflected on the meaning of her life so far. She spoke of the good times and the tough times. She told us of the sorrow of losing people she loved and expressed her deep gratitude for her happy, healthy family. By the end of the weekend, Alice was bursting with enthusiasm to keep flourishing and stay fighting fit so she can continue to enjoy her life to the full.  

It got me thinking about special birthdays like this. What is it about these decade milestones that inspire reflection and what impact does the renewed motivation that often accompanies these dates have on our health? I couldn’t help myself and looked up what the research has to say. I was fascinated to discover that Hal Hershfield, from the University of California Los Angeles (who I’ve written about before because of his fascinating work on emotional balance) has pondered these questions in a series of six studies.  

In the first study Hershfield and his team analyzed responses from 42,063 people from more than 100 countries who completed the World Values Survey. People who were the 9-enders (those about to turn 30, 40, 50 etc.) thought about meaning and purpose more often than other respondents. It’s interesting that this period of reflection seems to be universal across different cultures. He verified this finding in a second study using an online questionnaire which also found that 9-enders were more preoccupied by seeking meaning than people in other age groups.  

In the next set of studies Hershfield wanted to see whether 9-enders were more likely to take action in their search for meaning and purpose. Sadly, he found that people are more likely to commit suicide if they’re approaching a decade birthday. But on the plus side, he found that male 9-enders are more likely to register for a dating website, which is good news for women 9-enders also inspired to find love.  

When it comes to health and fitness, Hershfield’s findings are also interesting. People are more likely to run a marathon if they have a decade birthday milestone approaching. In fact, people who had a milestone birthday coming up represented almost half of the population of 500 marathon participants in the US. The good news for competitive people approaching a big birthday is that runners who were about to turn 30 or 40 also had faster running times, suggesting that people who are about tick over into the next age bracket are more likely to train harder and be more motivated than their peers who were 28 or 38.  

I’m not sure that Alice is about to register on a dating website or start training for a marathon, but Hershfield’s research confirms what most of us already know to be true - we are significantly more likely to consider the meaning and purpose of our lives as we approach the start of a new decade; and with that time of self-reflection often comes the motivation we need to implement changes we want to make. I have a few years to wait before my next big decade milestone, so for now, I think I might borrow Alice’s 70th as my excuse to motivate a few of the health initiatives I’ve been meaning to implement in my own life.

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