- Don’t sweat the small stuff.
- Wear sun block daily.
- Drink plenty of green tea and water.
- Reduce stress.
- Be cheerful and optimistic about life.
- Get a pet.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. Every day, we are bombarded with similar information on how to live longer from the news, films, websites, blogs, radio, magazines, health-conscious friends, and our mothers. One would think this body of knowledge was based on an extensive and exhaustive study on longevity that spanned lifetimes, but such is the nature of conventional, antecdotal wisdom–often, a solid foundation simply does not exist. In fact, what may be thought of as shortcuts to long life, for certain groups of people, may have the exact opposite affect. Some of what we may think will benefit ourselves and our loved ones could actually rob us of years later on in life.
Psychology professors Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin, through a two-decade-long odyssey aptly named The Longevity Project (Penguin, $25.95, March 3), attempt to shed new and almost blindingly bright light into the broad shade of accepted thinking on the subject of longevity. How is it that some individuals are more susceptible to disease, have a longer recovery period, and die sooner while others of the same demographic thrive? With all the possible explanations for it – be it careers, risk-taking behavior, lack of religion, anxiety, lack of exercise, pessimism, unsociability, etc. – why are none of these possibilities well-studied over the long term, following subjects’ lives step-by-step?
As staff researchers and 1996 UC Riverside alumna (Ph.D) Friedman and Martin have taken on an unprecedented study, refining and supplementing data gathered by the late Stanford University psychologist Louis Terman and subsequent researchers on more than 1,500 bright children, all around 10 years old when the first became subjects of the study in 1921. “It’s surprising just how often common assumptions — by both scientists and the media — are wrong,” said Friedman, distinguished professor of psychology who led the 20-year study. “Probably our most amazing finding was that personality characteristics and social relations from childhood can predict one’s risk of dying decades later… This is what is thrilling to me- to go beyond the trivial. I don’t really much care whether walnuts have more omega-3 fatty acids than pecans; I want to know which fundamental patterns of living lead to long, healthy lives.”
The Longevity Project followed the children through their lives, examining and collecting information for each child into adulthood that included relationships, family histories, hobbies, teacher and parent ratings on personality, pet ownership, education levels, job success, military service, and a host of other aspects of life generally regarded as (or mistaken for) minutiae.
“When we started,” Friedman recalled, “we were more frustrated with the state of research about individual differences, stress, health and longevity.” Friedman and Martin began in 1991, planning on spending only six months examining predictors of longevity and health among the study participants, only to find themselves continuing the project over the next two decades, working with a team of more than 100 graduate and undergraduate students who evaluated interviews, analyzed tens of thousands of pages of information, and tracked down death certificates. The results were surprising for everyone. “One of the findings that really astounds people, including us, is that The Longevity Project participants who were the most cheerful and had the best sense of humor as kids lived shorter lives, on average, than those who were less cheerful and joking. It was the most prudent and persistent individuals who stayed healthiest and lived the longest,” said Martin, now working at La Sierra University in Riverside as a psychology professor.
So while a cheerful, optimistic approach can help in a crisis, apparently those kids tended to take more health risks through the years. “[T]oo much of a sense that ‘everything will be just fine’ can be dangerous because it can lead one to be dangerous because it can lead one to be careless about things that are important to health and long life. Prudence and persistence, however, led to a lot of important benefits for many years. It turns out that happiness is not a root cause of good health. Instead, happiness and health go together because they have common roots,” Friedman notes.
Many of The Longevity Project findings fly in the face of conventional understanding about ways to extend the healthy human lifespan. For example:
- “Don’t work too hard, don’t stress,” doesn’t work as advice for good health and long life. Terman subjects who were the most involved and committed to their jobs did the best. Continually productive men and women lived much longer than their more laid-back comrades.
- People who feel loved and cared for report a better sense of well being, but it doesn’t help them live longer. The clearest health benefit of social relationships comes from being involved with and helping others. The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become – healthy or unhealthy.
- Marriage may be good for men’s health, but it doesn’t really matter for women. Steadily married men – those who remained in long-term marriages – were likely to live to age 70 and beyond; fewer than one-third of divorced men were likely to live to 70; and men who never married outlived those who remarried and significantly outlived those who divorced – but they did not live as long as married men.
- Being divorced is much less harmful to women’s health. Women who divorced and did not remarry lived nearly as long as those who were steadily married.
- Playing with pets is not associated with longer life. Pets may sometimes improve well-being, but they are not a substitute for friends.
And that’s only listing a few. But wait, the first step, according to Friedman and Martin, is to throw away the lists and stop worrying about worrying.
“Some of the minutiae of what people think will help us lead long, healthy lives, such as worrying about the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the foods we eat, actually are red herrings, distracting us from the major pathways,” Friedman notes. “When we recognize the long-term healthy and unhealthy patterns in ourselves, we can begin to maximize the healthy patterns.” Martin concludes: “Thinking of making changes as taking ‘steps’ is a great strategy. You can’t change major things about yourself overnight. But making small changes, and repeating those steps can eventually create that path to longer life.”
So what think you, Methuselites? Are there small changes that you can envision yourself making in the immediate future that will improve or create new, healthy habits that may lead to longer life? Read up on The Longevity Project with us and tell us what you think! We’d love to hear from you.
Reference: Greenwood, Veronique. “The Longevity Project: Decades of Data Reveal Paths to Long Life.” The Atlantic March 10, 2011: 1. The Atlantic Monthly Group. Web. Web. 15 Mar. 2011. http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/03/the-longevity-project-decades-of-data-reveal-paths-to-long-life/72290/.