The Longevity Project: Decades of Data Reveal Paths to Long Life

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"Worrying is always bad for your health." Wrong. A study lasting for more than 80 years debunks conventional wisdom.

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Philip was a bright, nervous child. He was younger than average in his grade, his mother having started him a year early. He was close to his parents, who divorced when he was 13, and then lived with his mother, who struggled to make ends meet. As he grew up, married, and became a father, he evolved into a worrier. He divorced, remarried shortly after. He joined the military and seemed to enjoy it, but later reported that his job was not fully satisfying, and he felt he hadn't lived up to his potential. He died early, before his 65th birthday, of a heart attack.

Philip was one of 1,500 bright children who were tracked for more than 80 years in a massive longitudinal study begun in 1921 by psychologist Lewis Terman. Terman and his successors—he died before many of the children—collected millions of details about these subjects, including whether they were breast-fed, how much they exercised, what their marriages were like, how satisfying their sex lives were, how satisfying their jobs were. Could this sea of information teach us how to avoid Philip's fate?

"Take it easy; don't work so hard, and you will stay healthier." This is rotten advice—the stress that comes from an ambitious career can be beneficial to health.

In The Longevity Project (Penguin, $25.95, March 3) the psychology professors Howard S. Friedman and Leslie Martin describe their two-decade-long odyssey to answer that question using Terman's data. Eventually publishing about 50 scholarly papers on the subject, they discovered that many adages promising long life—get married, exercise regularly, think happy thoughts, don't work so hard—are not shortcuts to immortality, and for certain groups of people, they can actually have the opposite effect.

For instance, optimistic people have a tendency to ignore details, meaning they don't follow doctor's orders correctly or lead themselves into unhealthy situations or addictions. It was the conscientious people—careful, sometimes even neurotic, but not catastrophizing—who lived longer, write Friedman and Martin, researchers at the University of California, Riverside. And, their studies show, some of what we think will benefit our children may actually rob them of years later in life. In the Terman study, precocious, active children who were sent to school a year early, as Philip was, tended to have emotional problems that led to unhealthy behaviors and shortened life span.

The list of findings goes on and on, and what emerges is that each individual, like Philip, has a constellation of behaviors and experiences that determine the quality and the quantity of their life. Though some of them are not under our control—did your parents divorce? Too bad for you!—others, like finding a community of friends who need your help and can help you, are eminently achievable. I spoke with Dr. Friedman about what we can learn from The Longevity Project.

Most psychological studies collect data from small groups of subjects over relatively short periods of time. How is working with this giant trove of information different?

An 80-year rich archive on so many people is simply unprecedented. After we discover some important correlation—say, women who are religious tend to live longer than nonreligious women—it allows us to return to the archive to do another study investigating the reasons for what we have found. (In that case, the added longevity turned out to be because of increased social interactions through a church, a benefit the nonreligious can reap too.)

For example, when we discovered that the people who were hard workers, accomplished, and successful lived the longest, we of course looked at what specific behaviors of successful people might contribute to health. But we were also able to look back and study what larger patterns in their lifestyles led these people to be both successful and long-lived. It can take a year or more to do each follow-up study, but we get a deep understanding that hasn't otherwise been possible.

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.

You found that certain clusters of behaviors and personality traits relate to longevity. What were a few of the most counterintuitive connections you uncovered?

One of our longevity myths is "Get married, and you will live longer." The data tell a different story.

Marriage was health-promoting primarily for men who were well-suited to marriage and had a good marriage. For the rest, there were all kinds of complications.

For example, women who got divorced often thrived. Even women who were widowed often did exceptionally well. It often seemed as if women who got rid of their troublesome husbands stayed healthy—most women, it seemed, can rely on their friends and other social ties. Men who got and stayed divorced, on the other hand, were at really high risk for premature mortality. It would have been better had they not married at all.

"Take it easy; don't work so hard, and you will stay healthier." This is rotten advice—the stress that comes from an ambitious career can be beneficial to health. "Worrying is very bad for your health." This is not all true. We found lots of instances where worrying was healthy, especially for men.

Longevityproject_cover.jpg And which, on the flip side, were intuitive?

Some of our findings seem obvious in retrospect. But they were mostly overlooked by health scientists until we published our findings. One breakthrough finding was that conscientious children and conscientious adults stay healthier and live significantly longer. This discovery has now been widely replicated by other scientists and is a focus of current research worldwide.

There are three reasons conscientious people tend to stay healthier and live longer. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that conscientious people do more things to protect their health. They engage in fewer risky activities like smoking, drinking to excess, abusing drugs, or driving too fast.

The second, and not obvious, reason for the health benefits of conscientiousness is that some people actually seem to be biologically predisposed both to have that personality trait and to be healthier. They are less prone to a whole host of diseases, not just those caused by dangerous habits. It appears likely that conscientious and unconscientious people have different levels of certain chemicals in their brains, including serotonin, which may be involved.

The third and most intriguing reason they live longer is that having a conscientious personality leads people into healthier situations and relationships. They find their way to happier marriages, better friendships, and healthier work environments. And these things, we found, were key for longer life.

One especially interesting connection was that career accomplishments, rather than indicating increased stressed and shortened life, indicated longer life. How can people apply this to their choice of career, or the way they approach their career?

We found that it didn't much matter whether you found your dream job. All you young people out there, take note.

Many Terman subjects found themselves in less-than-ideal jobs and yet attained great success and satisfaction; they thrived. It was clear that working hard to overcome adversity or biting off more than you can chew—and then chewing it—does not generally pose a health risk. Striving to accomplish your goals, setting new aims when milestones are reached, and staying engaged and productive are exactly what those heading to a long life tend to do. The long-lived didn't shy away from hard work; the exact opposite seemed true.

On the other hand, if you hate your co-workers and have many job demands but inadequate resources to accomplish anything worthwhile, then it is time to look for new employment.

Some of the connections you uncovered relate not only to what we might want to change in our own lives, but what we might do to cause our children to follow healthy paths.

Yes—as it turned out, starting formal schooling at a very early age turned out not to be a very good idea for most. Children need unstructured play time, and they need to get along with their peers; starting out young seemed to alienate them.

On the other hand, those children who faced stresses early in life but who bounced back by young adulthood were able to overcome early threats to their later health and lived long lives. Depending on the circumstances, a traumatic event such as parental divorce could actually contribute to a longer life, if the child learned to be resilient.

You found that many of the stopgap measures we force on ourselves don't have the expected effects. What should we give up on, as longevity promoters, and what should we strive for instead?

Health advice has been mostly a public health failure. When John F. Kennedy became president he immediately began emphasizing the importance of physical health and the role of government in promoting fitness. Fifty-mile hikes became a fad. This was the same year that Dr. Ancel Keys, a prominent doctor who also happened to be a Terman subject, was featured on the cover of Time magazine telling Americans that they ate too much.

Now, half a century later, most segments of the American population are more obese and less fit than ever. This doesn't mean that President Kennedy's efforts were misguided or caused today's problems. But it does suggest that such traditional approaches—lists of recommendations, New Year's resolutions, and so on—are often ineffective over the long term.

You need to make changes that will be sustainable in the long term. We say, if you don't like jogging, don't jog! Instead, begin doing things that you really enjoy and can keep up, like a walk at lunchtime with a friend or vigorous gardening. Follow the healthy Terman participants, who grew up before gyms or running shoes even existed: develop those patterns, whatever they are, that get you up and out of your chair.

I hope the findings and perspectives we report in The Longevity Project change the nature of the discussion of how to stay healthy. Our studies suggest that a society with more conscientious and goal-oriented citizens, well-integrated into their communities, is likely to be a society of health and long life.

Of course, this will be especially helpful if the community also has clean and safe air, water, and food, as well as good schools and safe streets. But few appreciate the extent to which mental health and social health are the close companions of physical health. And few fully grasp the importance of developing the social patterns that let each individual find an appropriate way forward, step by step. This is why we emphasize both the uniqueness of each person and the common healthy behavioral patterns we uncovered. Each of us has to make our own way to long life.

Main image: Alex Hoyt. Book cover: Hudson Street Press.

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Veronique Greenwood is a staff writer at Discover. Her writing has also appeared in Seed, Technology Review, Scientific American, and elsewhere. You can learn more about her at veroniquegreenwood.com.

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