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“It’s not the happy-go-lucky who thrive—it’s the prudent and persistent who flourish through the years.” Howard S. Friedman, PhD, and Leslie R. Martin, PhD, The Longevity Project (Hudson Street, 2011)

“We can’t reach old age by another man’s road. My habits protect my life, but they would assassinate you.” Mark Twain

The Longevity Project

Personality Traits and Long Life

As highlighted in Next Medicine and Bending the Aging Curve (links below), doctors and hospitals focus on disease; medicine isn't designed to keep us healthy. We can—and should—do far more for ourselves (sensibly eating and exercise) than doctors can do for us. We are the vanguard of our health. The Longevity Project, a new book by psychologists Howard S. Friedman, PhD, and Leslie R. Martin, PhD, reveals that personality traits, relationships, experiences, and career paths also have an effect on our health and longevity—often in surprising ways. Fortunately, many life enhancing personality traits can be cultivated.  

Friedman and Martin used one of the most celebrated studies in psychology to answer the question of who lives longest—and why. They used a study of 1500  precocious children begun in 1921 by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman and carried on by others into this century. The beauty of the study, what makes it unique, is that the children were studied in meticulous detail throughout the course of their lives. Almost all of them are now gone. So we know how they lived, when they died, and what caused their death. Some died early and others had long and healthy lives.

Dr. Terman's study, begun 90 years ago, has become a veritable gold mine of information for several generations of researchers. Friedman and Martin began mining and contributing to the Terman study in 1990, an auspicious time when the children were in their ninth decade of life or deceased. Their findings are chronicled in The Longevity Project (Hudson Street, 2011).

“The patterns and pathways to long life that we have uncovered make a significant difference in health and longevity—on average, many account for five or more years of life,” the authors write. “If you put them together, you find the reasons why many bright, healthy children live to their seventies, eighties, and even nineties or hundreds, while many other bright, healthy children go on to die in their fifties and sixties.”

Let’s look at some of their most important and intriguing findings.

Prudent and Persistent

“The best childhood predictor of longevity was conscientiousness—the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person—somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree,” Friedman and Martin write early on in the book. That may not be sexy and exciting but, as we’ll see, it’s quite logical.

Some might have predicted that cheerfulness or a sociable personality would be the best predictor of a long life, but that was clearly not the case. “Certain other factors were also relevant, but the prudent, dependable children lived longest,” the authors state without equivocation. “The strength of this finding was unexpected, but it proved to be a very important and enduring one.”

To confirm his earlier evaluations Dr. Terman gave his subjects a new series of tests and measures of conscientiousness in 1940, when they were adults. Friedman and Martin also tested Terman’s questions and measures on contemporary subjects, and compared the results using modern, well validated personality tests.

“Dr. Terman’s approach to personality holds up nicely and can help us predict our own futures,” the authors found. “This confirmation in adulthood was particularly impressive because personality was being measured differently. Conscientiousness in childhood was measured by parent and teacher ratings. Conscientiousness in adulthood was measured by self-report questionnaires.”

Finally, Friedman and Martin did something earlier researchers could not have done. They matched conscientiousness ratings with death certificates. By the end of the twentieth century, 70 percent of the Terman men and 51 percent of the Terman women had died. “It was the unconscientious among them who had been dying in especially large numbers,” the authors write. “In both cases—childhood and adulthood—conscientiousness was the key personality predictor of long life.”

Why is conscientiousness so important? The authors give three possible reasons why conscientious individuals tend to stay healthier and live longer. “To our great surprise, all three are true,” they write.

The first reason is perhaps the most obvious. “Conscientious people do more things to protect their health and engage in fewer activities that are risky,” the authors relate. They are less likely to smoke or drive too fast, for example. They buckle their seat belt and follow the doctor’s advice. “They are not necessarily risk averse but they tend to be sensible in evaluating how far to push the envelope.” 

Second, and least obvious, some people are “biologically predisposed to be both more conscientious and healthier.” They’re less prone to develop certain diseases, not just those caused by dangerous habits. “We and others are uncovering this startling finding again and again—conscientious folks are less likely to die from all sorts of causes,” the authors explain. “While we are not yet sure of the precise physiological reasons, it appears that conscientious and unconscientious people have different levels of certain chemicals in their brains, including serotonin…Individuals with low levels of serotonin tend to be much more impulsive. Importantly, serotonin is also necessary to regulate many health-related processes throughout the body, including how much you eat and how well you sleep.”

The authors tell us there’s “no cause for fatalism.” Levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin can change over time. “Some Terman subjects who started out low on conscientiousness led long and healthy lives… Some wild frat boys quit drinking the morning after their fortieth birthday. Cautious others abandon their sensible lifestyle in midlife and buy a red sports convertible.” 

The third and final reason is perhaps the most hopeful and empowering, according to the authors. “Having a conscientious personality leads you into healthier situations and relationships… [Conscientious people] find their way to happier marriages, better friendships, and healthier work situations. That’s right, conscientious people create healthy, long-life pathways for themselves.”

My favorite chapter of the book is sub-titled “Jocks versus Nerds.” The Terman study participants, of course, came along well before the jogging craze. Jack LaLanne was six years old when Dr. Terman picked his first subject. It was more than four decades before Dr. Ken Cooper coined the term aerobics. P90X was beyond the imagination of the most farsighted Termanator. Nevertheless, the Terman study participants have an important message for us on staying physically active throughout life.

Find Your Activity Pattern

“Today almost everyone knows that fit, active people are healthier,” Friedman and Martin write. “Yet today the average American eats much more and is much less active than the average American of fifty years ago and than the average Terman subject born one hundred years ago. Advice to spend thirty minutes, at least four times a week, expending energy at the rate of 6-8 METs is good, up-to-date medical advice, but poor practical advice.” (Emphasis mine)

Co-author Leslie Martin climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2005, and recently completed the 151-mile Marathon des Sables across the Moroccan Sahara. The 6-day Marathon des Sables crosses the hottest part of Africa; runners have to carry their own food, bedding, and clothing the whole way. She enjoys the challenge of extreme sports, “but for personal fulfillment as part of her active lifestyle, not as a desperate attempt to secure good health. (Emphasis mine) Ultradistance events suit her, but she doesn’t urge that lifestyle on others. She recommends whatever “gets you up and out of your chair.”

That’s essentially what active, healthy Terman participants did.

“Fitness levels, it appears, are more personal than the general exercise is good for you mantra might suggest,” Friedman and Martin write. “All in all the findings told us that it makes no sense to rely on generalizations—individuals, we found, are on their own activity paths. The edict to exercise rigorously needs to be altered and tailored to the person. 

“If you don’t like jogging, don’t jog,” the authors advise. “Instead, begin doing things that you really enjoy and can keep up… You don’t have to do the same thing all the time, and you definitely don’t have to do something that irritates or bores you.” 

Nerds in childhood often won out in the long run. “Being a childhood jock did not lead to long life if you were one of those who quit sports and slowed down a lot as you aged. On the other hand, being inactive in childhood was not a problem if you became more active as you aged. Those who were active in youth and stayed active tended to live very long lives,” the authors report. “Those who were inactive in youth and became more active often did almost as well in terms of life span, and sometimes equally well.”

Find an activity or activities that suit your personality and you’ll be ahead of the game—and stay there.

Mark Twain found exercise loathsome, but he had the right idea generally, according to the authors. Twain’s maxim: We can’t reach old age by another man’s road. My habits protect my life, but they would assassinate you.

(Sounds a lot like the Ownership Principle introduced in my book Lean For Life: http://www.cbass.com/SELECTIO.HTM

Let’s end with a look at extroverts, outgoing and gregarious, and introverts, shy and reclusive. Which personality type is most likely to have a long and healthy life? Many will find the topic revealing and perhaps encouraging, as I did.

Friendly and Convivial

“The surprising news here is that sociability, generally speaking, isn’t as health protective as people think,” the authors write. “Being a ‘people person’ can have its benefits, but those who rank high on sociability often find themselves in environments that encourage unhealthy behaviors—and they join in the dangers of the moment.”

Friedman and Martin say it pays to be selective in your socializing. Friendly people who chose wisely reap long term health benefits. “Further, many of the more introverted children in our study grew up to take on stable jobs and develop steady friendships, which were just as valuable for health and long life. So if you’re socially reluctant and you’re okay with that—so are we.”

Friedman and Martin found that, on average, sociable children did not live longer. Some died young, while others lived into old age. It was roughly a wash. If does, of course, make a difference whether a person is friendly and outgoing or someone who works well alone and doesn’t much care for parties. For example, people high on the sociability scale are usually excellent in sales. On the other hand, introverts often do better in science or research fields.

One of Dr. Terman’s last studies, in 1954, posed the question Are scientists different? “He was wondering how to recruit more scholars to be scientists and also how to smooth relations between scientists and lawyers,” the authors recount. What he found reveals a lot about the gulf between extroverts and introverts.

Terman concluded that scientists and engineers are at the opposite pole from businessmen and lawyers in their abilities, occupational interests, and social behaviors. Scientists were much less sociable. In school, future scientists were shyer and less involved in social networks.

“These differences were just what we needed—an important clue as to why sociability did not predict who lived a long life,” the authors relate.

After recreating Terman’s groups of scientists and nonscientists, Friedman and Martin found that scientists outlived the nonscientists. “Only two-thirds of the nonscientists but almost three-quarters of the scientists lived to reach age seventy.” 

Interestingly, the two groups were equal in conscientiousness.  

So why didn’t the sociable lawyers and businessmen live longer?  

“It turns out the scientists had an ace in the whole,” the authors explained. “They tended to move into stable jobs, have long-lasting marriages, and generally work in a responsible manner. Nonscientists—that is, the businessmen, lawyers, salesman, and so on—tended to have more tumultuous, less stable, and more health-damaging careers and behaviors.”

“Overall, [however], sociability was a wash. It didn’t help or harm one’s expected life span.”

*  *  *

The other lesson, it seems to me, is that it would pay to think long and hard about where you fall on the sociability scale before choosing a career path. It may explain why I have found more satisfaction in studying and writing about health and fitness than I did in law. On the other hand, the ability to think clearly and logically required for success in law school and law practice, has been extremely helpful to my career as a fitness writer and consultant. So it may be that I chose more wisely than I knew.

In any event, I found The Longevity Project a very rewarding and worthwhile read, and recommend it to anyone interested in the role of personality in health and longevity—and life. As always I have only scratched the surface in my commentary on this book. I touched on only 3 of the 15 chapters in the book.

(As promised, here are the links to our earlier articles Next Medicine http://www.cbass.com/NextMedicine.htm and Bending the Aging Curve http://www.cbass.com/BendingTheAgingCurve.htm )

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