Living Better and Longer: Lessons From an 8-Decade Study

The Longevity Project followed 1,500 people over their entire life spans and learned a few things about living healthfully in the process


There's plenty of health information out there. Maybe too much. It comes in the form of newspaper or magazine articles, daily newsletters, Facebook posts, and tweets. Some is helpful, some is worrisome, some is fluff, and some may not be worth the paper (or pixels) it's printed on. New research studies offer illuminating, but often tiny, pieces of the puzzle that is the human body, so it can be hard to know what to make of them all. Consumers may be left feeling overwhelmed and not knowing which advice is worth its salt.

The huge volume of health information can cause other problems. As we read about the genetics behind disease and the physiological mechanisms behind behaviors like addiction and compulsion, it's easy to feel like our health is outside of our control. There's always a new gene being discovered that ups our risk for a certain disease.

Even more, recent research into the impact of the environment (toxins, viruses) on certain medical conditions provides good evidence that there are external factors outside our control that also influence our health status.

It may be tempting to throw up your hands and say, "There's nothing I can do, it's all up to genes, chance, and the environment."

The fact is that research shows us every day that there are things we do to help ourselves live longer and healthier lives.

The amount of unexpected and intriguing new evidence prompted us to ask the question, "What is health, after all, and how to we get there?" Howard S. Friedman, Ph.D., a health psychologist who is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside and co-author of The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study, helped us sort this out.

Using the data from a famous long-term study, Friedman and his colleague and co-author Leslie R. Martin, Ph.D., looked at the behavior patterns of 1,500 people over virtually their entire life spans. By looking at the relationships between behaviors and how long the subjects lived, they were able to determine what people did that made a difference in longevity and what did not. "The beauty of The Longevity Project is that we don't have to speculate about explanations," says Friedman. "We can go back into the lifelong data and see."

Here, we'll discuss why it pays to pay attention not only to your body, but to your life as a whole, often in ways you might not think of, or may be contrary to what you grew up hearing. Envisioning health as a cluster of interconnected behaviors and habits, rather than a check-list of things to get done, is really what we should strive for.

Health Is a Path, Not a List of Behaviors

When health problems befall us, it's normal to feel like there's some massive lottery system at play, and we either have a winning or losing ticket. While there may be some element of truth to this, Friedman says that there's actually less chance than meets the eye. He tells us that "one of the most interesting findings of my Longevity Project was that a lot of things that seem like chance are really not random. Certain patterns and pathways lead step by step to good things, while others lead step-by-step to unhealthy things and poor health." Another way of thinking about this concept is that every disease has a cause or, more likely, a set of causes, whether they are identifiable to us in our relatively limited of understanding of disease or not.

For example, cancer develops because the mechanisms that normally keep our cell division in check break down. But this is just a description of what happens, not the basic underlying cause. The real, and less clear-cut, question is, "Why do these mechanisms break down?" The answer is likely not random, but a combination of many factors, including genetic predisposition, exposure to viruses or toxins at some point during life, and lifestyle choices like diet, smoking, alcohol consumption, and even certain social factors, is really what gives way to the growth of a tumor. So discovering how these factors interact is the real question.

By mapping out the habit patterns that healthy people tend to follow, Friedman and his team were able to determine which variables were common across the long-lived vs. the shorter-lived. In some cases, the findings flew in the face of conventional wisdom.

The CDC recently published a study showing that there are four healthy behaviors -- not smoking, limiting alcohol, exercising, and eating right -- that will make a significant difference in your likelihood of dying from any cause, particularly heart disease and cancer. (1) Another recent study showed that changing the most common lifestyle risk factors for Alzheimer's disease could cut down on millions of cases per year. (2)

But what about all the people who do everything right, and still encounter untimely disease or even death? Friedman says that even perfect checklists can amount to nothing. "I think simple checklists or lifestyle lists are worse than useless," he says. "We all know lots of things that are well-documented to be health-promoting and part of a healthy lifestyle -- stop smoking and substance abuse, stay active, eat right (mostly a plant-based diet), sleep well, don't gain weight, have friends. So why aren't most people healthy?! Instead, I advise, 'Throw away your lists' because our studies suggest that it is much more important to get on an overall healthy pathway." Changing one's constellation of health habits takes time; it may not be easy, but it is possible.

Healthy Pathways

As mentioned earlier, health is best thought of as a cluster or cumulative effect. It's tempting to believe that changing a single aspect of your life will immediately lead to a significant health benefit. There's no doubt that changing a single behavior can help: for example, studies have found that quitting smoking has an immediate positive effect on blood vessels, and if you already have lung cancer, quitting smoking soon after diagnosis doubles your survival rate.

On the other hand, if you are leading an unhealthy life on multiple levels, changing just one behavior may not have a make or break effect on your health and longevity overall. Says Friedman, "most eye-opening is our finding that the risk factors and protective shields do not occur in isolation, but bunch together in patterns -- the healthy or unhealthy life trails that we call pathways."

Healthy behaviors occur in groups. This is one reason that modern studies are so difficult to interpret. Here's an example: Sure, eating more cruciferous vegetables (translation: members of the mustard family, like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower) is correlated with longer life, but people who are eating these foods are likely partaking in a variety of beneficial behaviors, like exercising, not smoking, and preparing and enjoying all kinds of fresh foods. So when certain foods are looked at in isolation, they show an effect, but what is hidden in those results is really the bigger picture -- the cluster of behaviors and choices that brought the person to choose cruciferous vegetables in the first place.

That's because, Friedman tells us, "studies show that more conscientious and goal-oriented citizens, well-educated and hard-working, and with stable relationships well-integrated into their communities, are likely to thrive and be happy, and stay healthy and have a long life." Therefore, health is a long-term, multifaceted undertaking, which includes considerable psychological variables (more on this later), in addition to the physiological ones. You can't change overnight, but you can change over time. "Development of and changes into such patterns involve slow, step-by-step alterations that unfold across many years. But so does health. For example, connecting with and helping others is fundamental and so is more important than obsessing over a rigorous exercise program (even though moderate physical activity is important). But it not something you can do in three weeks." Learning how to -- slowly -- shift your habits over time to create a healthier overall picture, you will start to see that the whole is indeed more than the sum of its parts.

The Lifestyle-Gene-Environment Interaction

According to The Longevity Project, while genes account for about a third of our health, the impact of genes on disease risk may have as much to do with personality traits than whether you are genetically predisposed to develop a particular disease. Whether you are socially engaged, resistant to impulsivity, and conscientious -- factors that are determined both by nature and nurture -- gives you a leg up when it comes to health.

For example, offers Friedman, "persistence (and related traits of planning and prudence and self-control) turns out to be one of the best predictors of health and long life. Why are some people this way and why do some people become more this way?" The answer has partly to do with our brain chemistry, which is determined early on by both nature and nurture.

Differences in brain chemicals (such as serotonin) can, over time, "lead some people to become more conscientious and socially stable.... Some individuals, even though impulsive early on, become more mature. Others, even though predisposed to being conscientious, become more self-centered, lackadaisical, impulsive, and uncontrolled. In the Longevity Project we clearly saw changes in traits as individuals grew up and aged, some for the worse and some for the better." By being aware of your environment and how you interact with it, you can foster the personality traits that are most beneficial to your health and mental health.

(1) Ford ES, Zhao G, Tsai J, Li C. 2011. Low-risk lifestyle behaviors and all-cause mortality: Findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III Mortality Study. American Journal of Public Health.

(2) Barnes DE and Yaffe K. 2011. The projected effect of risk factor reduction on Alzheimer's disease prevalence. The Lancet Neurology 10(9): 819-28.

Presented by

Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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