Secrets To Longevity: It's Not All About Broccoli

Exercise is important, but it doesn't have to mean logging long hours at the gym. Longevity Project researchers found that intense fitness regimens could backfire — long-term, you're better off finding a physical activity that you love. i i

hide captionExercise is important, but it doesn't have to mean logging long hours at the gym. Longevity Project researchers found that intense fitness regimens could backfire — long-term, you're better off finding a physical activity that you love.

iStockphoto.com
Exercise is important, but it doesn't have to mean logging long hours at the gym. Longevity Project researchers found that intense fitness regimens could backfire — long-term, you're better off finding a physical activity that you love.

Exercise is important, but it doesn't have to mean logging long hours at the gym. Longevity Project researchers found that intense fitness regimens could backfire — long-term, you're better off finding a physical activity that you love.

iStockphoto.com

To live a long life, we've been told, eat well, exercise and manage stress. Now an eight-decade study indicates that's only part of the equation. Health scientists Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin explain how factors such as social connections, personality and marriage affect long-term health in The Longevity Project.

Friedman and Martin drew upon the work of Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman, who began studying intellectual leadership in 1921. Terman selected about 1,500 of the brightest boys and girls he could find and tracked them throughout their lives. He collected all sorts of information about the children and their families — from how many books were in their houses, to their dispositions.

Terman died in 1956, but the project was carried on by others. Friedman and Martin picked up on his work in 1990, and used the decades of data gathered to better understand health and longevity.

"Everyone knows," Friedman tells NPR's Jennifer Ludden, "that some people are more prone to disease, and they take longer to recover and they live shorter lives, when their seemingly comparable friends and associates thrive." Genetic factors offer part of the explanation for why — about one-third, he says — but there's much more to it.

Take disposition, for example. Cheerful and optimistic children are actually less likely to live long lives, they found.

Cover of 'The Longevity Project'
The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries For Health And Long Life From The Landmark Eight-Decade Study
By Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin
Hardcover, 272 pages
Hudson Street Press
List price: $25.95

"The most cheerful, optimistic kids grew up to take more risks," explains Martin. "By virtue of expecting good things to happen and feeling like nothing bad ever would, they predisposed themselves to be heavier drinkers, they tended to be smokers, and their hobbies were riskier."

So, she concludes, "some degree of worrying actually is good." And, in fact, adds Friedman, "the prudent, persistent, planful people — both in childhood ... and then in young adulthood we measured that — that was the strongest individual difference, or personality predictor, of long life."

And it's not just about risk aversion. The study found that conscientious people developed better social relationships and accomplished more at work. Think all that responsibility sounds boring? Not so, says Martin. "Because of those qualities, they tended to get nice opportunities in life, and so they went on to live some of the most exciting and interesting lives of anyone in the study."

Often, with responsibility comes stress, something we're typically advised to avoid. But some stress is not a bad thing, says Martin. When study participants who had stressful jobs "found meaning in those jobs and they were committed to them, that stress really didn't hurt them. They thrived in spite of — or perhaps with the aid of — it."

Friedman and Martin also found that the conventional wisdom on fitness isn't quite right. If we try too hard to push ourselves into exercise regimens, it can backfire. Physical activity is important, they found, but it's more about doing what you love than adhering to a certain fitness program.

And for adults who have fallen into sedentary lifestyles, it's not too late. In middle age, "if you can pick up some activity you like — it doesn't have to be going to the gym every morning — that really has a big impact on the rest of your life," says Friedman.

"We're really talking here about the difference between people who become sick and die in their 50s and 60s," he says, "versus those who thrive into their 70s, 80s and 90s."

Excerpt: 'The Longevity Project'

As our graduate students looked over the initial statistical findings on personality and long life, they gasped and laughed as they read the results: "Howard, that sounds like you!" The findings clearly revealed that the best childhood personality predictor of longevity was conscientiousness – the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person, like a scientist-professor – somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree.

It was not cheerfulness and it was not having a sociable personality that predicted long life across the ensuing many decades. Certain other factors were also relevant, but the prudent, dependable children lived the longest. The strength of this finding was unexpected, but it proved to be a very important and enduring one.

We had worried that perhaps nothing at all would foretell long life. This first finding demonstrated to us that a trait from childhood could be relevant to health many years later. Now we knew that questions Dr. Terman had asked parents and teachers back in 1922 could in fact predict health and longevity many decades into the future. We celebrated and raised our glasses to the Terman subjects, living and departed.

Assess Yourself

As we noted in the introduction, almost everyone seems to want to see where they fit into the long life picture. Do you match the profiles of the long-lived? We need to reiterate that the ability to predict health and longevity in any individual case is imperfect. But individuals often do recognize healthy or unhealthy patterns in themselves, their friends, or their families. To provide a deeper understanding of our ideas and to encourage movement toward healthier pathways, we offer relevant measures and risk assessments.

Let's start with a personality scale that we developed based on both Dr. Terman's questions and scaled and our own research, drawing on excellent work done at the Oregon Research Institute by measurement expert Dr. Lew Goldberg, who oversees a personality "collaboratory." Some of the items here are nearly the same as the ones Terman participants used in assessing themselves in young adulthood.

Self-Assessment: A Key Personality Component

To assess a core aspect of personality, decide how well each of the following statements describes you. Be honest, thinking about yourself as you usually are, compared to others who are the same sex and about the same age.

1. I am always prepared.

1 — very inaccurate
2 — moderately inaccurate
3 — neither accurate nor inaccurate
4 — moderately accurate
5 — very accurate

2. I leave my belongings around.

1 — very inaccurate
2 — moderately inaccurate
3 — neither accurate nor inaccurate
4 — moderately accurate
5 — very accurate

3. I actually get cold when I think of something cold.

1 — very inaccurate
2 — moderately inaccurate
3 — neither accurate nor inaccurate
4 — moderately accurate
5 — very accurate

4. I enjoy planning my work in detail.

1 — very inaccurate
2 — moderately inaccurate
3 — neither accurate nor inaccurate
4 — moderately accurate
5 — very accurate

5. I make a mess of things.

1 — very inaccurate
2 — moderately inaccurate
3 — neither accurate nor inaccurate
4 — moderately accurate
5 — very accurate

6. I get chores done right away.

1 — very inaccurate
2 — moderately inaccurate
3 — neither accurate nor inaccurate
4 — moderately accurate
5 — very accurate

7. I have sometimes had to tell a lie.

1 — very inaccurate
2 — moderately inaccurate
3 — neither accurate nor inaccurate
4 — moderately accurate
5 — very accurate

8. I often forget to put things back in their proper place.

1 — very inaccurate
2 — moderately inaccurate
3 — neither accurate nor inaccurate
4 — moderately accurate
5 — very accurate

9. I like order.

1 — very inaccurate
2 — moderately inaccurate
3 — neither accurate nor inaccurate
4 — moderately accurate
5 — very accurate

10. I shirk my duties.

1 — very inaccurate
2 — moderately inaccurate
3 — neither accurate nor inaccurate
4 — moderately accurate
5 — very accurate

11. I follow a schedule.

1 — very inaccurate
2 — moderately inaccurate
3 — neither accurate nor inaccurate
4 — moderately accurate
5 — very accurate

12. I am persistent in the accomplishment of my work and ends.

1 — very inaccurate
2 — moderately inaccurate
3 — neither accurate nor inaccurate
4 — moderately accurate
5 — very accurate

How to compute the total score:

Each item scores from 1 to 5. But for items 2, 5, 8, and 10, you need to reverse the scores. So if you said that "I leave my belongings around" was "very inaccurate" in describing you (a 1), change your score to its opposite, which is a 5. If you gave yourself a 2 you would change this to a a 4 and so on. If you said this was neither accurate nor inaccurate, you would leave your score as it is — a 3.

Then eliminate item 3 and item 7. Item 3 ("I actually get cold when I think of something cold") is an irrelevant filler item. Item 7 is a lie scale, in more than one sense of the term. For the remaining ten items, simply sum your scores.

A total score will fall somewhere between 10 and 50. This scale is a good measure of conscientiousness. Total scores between 10 and 24 indicate very low conscientiousness (the lowest quartile or 25 percent in a recent sample of adults). Scores between 37 and 50 suggest exceptionally high conscientiousness.

Another way to understand your own conscientiousness and to make it a more valid assessment is to get the viewpoint of someone else who knows you well. (Remember that in 1921 and 1922, Dr. Terman didn't ask the children about their personalities. Instead he asked their parents and teachers.) People who know you well are generally good judges of your personality, and sometimes the perspective of someone else can be enlightening, helping us to see ourselves more objectively. So use the same scale, but this time, have a friend rate you.

Excerpted from The Longevity Project by Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin. Courtesy of Hudson Street Press.

Books Featured In This Story

The Longevity Project
The Longevity Project

Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Eight-Decade Study

by Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin

Hardcover, 248 pages | purchase

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  • Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Eight-Decade Study
  • Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin

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