Can We Predict Who Will Live Longest?
Most of us wonder how long we will live. What determines a long life? Genes? Lifestyle? Chance? We all know of people who take great care of themselves and yet succumb to an unexpected heart attack…and then there are the chipper centenarians who announce that they’ve smoked every day for the last 80 years.
Fortune tellers and soothsayers throughout the ages have been approached with the question of long life and good health. Instead of relying on information gathered from a crystal ball or the lines on the palm of a hand, modern science turns instead to a more reliable and yet sometimes challenging prediction method: interpreting data.
"The Longevity Project"
Howard S. Friedman, Ph.D. and Leslie R. Martin, Ph.D.
Hudson Street Press
Each year, Caring Right at Home examines breaking studies showing connections between health, lifestyle choices and heredity. In evaluating these studies, it is important to take into account the size of the study, the merits of the study’s design, whether results have been duplicated, and the reputation of the research organization. Often a new study will fine-tune or even negate the results of previous research. It is the nature of scientific inquiry to forever refine and update our understanding of a subject.
For 20 years, authors Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin of the University of California, Riverside have worked to better understand the factors that contribute to—and perhaps predict—good health and long life. Friedman and Martin have utilized a huge collection of data from the Terman Study, which documented the lives of 1,500 Californians born around 1910, beginning in 1921 when the study subjects were schoolchildren of age 10 and continuing to the present.
Some of the Terman Study participants enjoyed long, healthy lives. Others experienced illness and early death. Some were successful in their families and careers. Some even grew up to be famous, including journalist Shelley Smith Mydans, film music composer Dimitri Tiomkin, "I Love Lucy" creator Jess Oppenheimer and nuclear physicist Norris Bradbury, who oversaw the development of the first atomic bomb. Over the years, the subjects and those close to them were quizzed about their personality traits, likes and dislikes and life events. It is this treasure trove of data that served as the background for Friedman and Martin’s new book, "The Longevity Project."
In "The Longevity Project," subtitled “Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study,” the authors examine the data to find out which inborn traits, life choices and experiences are related to good health and long life. The results suggested that while certain traits, choices and life events might promote long life or not, it is ultimately the way an individual responds to those events that makes the biggest difference. Even on the genetic level, it is an intricate interplay. For example, a person with a predisposition for lung cancer might develop the disease only if he or she smokes. Another person with a tendency toward depression might remain stable in the absence of difficult life events.
A few of the authors’ intriguing findings:
- The top personality trait that predicts a long, healthy life is "conscientiousness"—the "qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person."
- Characteristics displayed at an early age are not necessarily permanent. For example, a tendency toward catastrophic thinking (extreme pessimism) poses a health risk. But this is one area where we can learn more healthful ways of approaching life, developing more productive ways to think about challenging events.
- Do happiness and optimism predict a longer life? The authors show that a positive outlook can reduce stress and encourage healthy behaviors. But they also conjecture that a person who is overly optimistic may be more likely to take risks; worriers may actually be more cautious in protecting their health.
- In the same way, we have long known that sociability promotes healthy aging. And yet, some highly social individuals are more inclined to drink and smoke. The authors found that the area of sociability correlating most closely to longevity is the trait of helping other people.
- Marriage, historically cited as a health and longevity boost, is a much more complex topic than previously thought. Marriage, divorce, remarriage and relative marital happiness affect people differently, depending on their own personality and the interplay of personalities between the spouses—and the effects are different for men versus women.
- Divorce is another area where "it depends." Many of the female study subjects thrived after divorce, but men’s health on average took a turn for the worse. Men who remarried fared better than those who did not. The authors speculate this is because women are traditionally the caretakers of the family, and also are more likely to have friends and social ties outside the marriage.
- Harmful job stress seems to stem not so much from the difficulty of one’s job duties as from conflict with others. The old saying that stress equals all the responsibility and none of the control isn’t far off the mark.
Friedman and Martin also examine the impact of physical activity, religious beliefs and practices, wartime experience and several other variables. For readers who would like to see how they personally stack up against the Terman Study subjects, the authors include a set of self-assessment questionnaires.
The authors acknowledge that data interpretation is an inexact science. They stress that their findings serve best as a set of prompts to encourage us to examine our own lives. They remind us that the quantity of our life—how long we live—is not as important as the quality. "The Longevity Project" offers tidbits of information to consider as we make daily and long-term choices.
The authors conclude by noting, "Predicting your own health and longevity from that of your parents is mediocre at best. Sure, tendencies toward certain diseases run in families, and some diseases have clear genetic cause. But as a predictor of whether you will have a heart attack or live a long life? The experience of your relatives is not very precise at all. Your own life path matters more."
Drs. Friedman and Martin talk about their research in a short video on the Penguin Books website.
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