Living Longer … what really works?

If you wish to live to a ripe old age, in fact if you want to age well, then what do you actually need to do, what makes a real difference? here is a popular list:

• 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.
• Marry.

Does that all sound familiar? Of course it does, because if asked, then it is a list that most of us might have come up with simply because we all face a constant stream of information from a wide variety of sources insisting that this is what you need to do. Tragically these are all myths, there is no long-term data to backup many of these claims. In fact, it now turns out that much of this is simply wrong and will guarantee that you live a shorter life, not a longer one.

Psychology professors Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin, have now published details of their two-decade-long study which was named The Longevity Project (Penguin, $25.95, March 3).

The questions are obvious, why are some individuals more susceptible to disease, have a longer recovery period, and die sooner while others of the same demographic thrive? You need to consider all the possible explanations  – careers, risk-taking behavior, lack of religion, anxiety, lack of exercise, pessimism, unsociability, etc. – so why has nobody done a long term study that follows subjects’ lives step-by-step in order to identify what truly does make a difference? perhaps because it takes, by definition, a very long time.

Well, as staff researchers and 1996 UC Riverside alumna (Ph.D) Friedman and Martin have now completed such 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 they 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 wide variety of other variables.

“When we started,” Friedman recalled, “we were more frustrated with the state of research about individual differences, stress, health and longevity.”

At the start in 1991, they only planned for a six month study examining the various longevity and health factors among the earlier Terman study participants, but soon they were caught up in it and continued the project over the next two decades. The team of more than 100 graduate and undergraduate students 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.

“Too much of a sense that ‘everything will be just fine’ can 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.

So what have they actually discovered? Well, many of The Longevity Project findings greatly change the popular 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. The 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.

So what should you actually be doing, well perhaps a good start, according to Friedman and Martin, is to toss 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.”

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

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