by Christel Swasey

Health Longevity Surprising Predictors

Wow.  This remarkable book that I’ve been reading, “The Longevity Project” by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin, (an 8-decade study of 1,500 people’s lives and deaths) reveals that longevity is not most likely for those who maintain a certain perfect diet, exercise regimen, or even an optimistic attitude. The surprise finding, according to Friedman and Martin, was that the “best childhood personality predictor of longevity was conscientiousness.”

Conscientiousness! Of all things.  Didn’t you think the secret would be probioic yogurt, wheat grass, broccoli, jogging, and an optimistic outlook? Nope.  It’s having a philosophy of conscientiously approaching all aspects of your life.  Conscientiousness means a person probably does not smoke, drink or jump on fat diets, is not a glutton; exercises; does not go to extremes; makes healthy friendships; plans, evaluates, ponders, and works hard.

The long-lived person, the authors explain, is a “prudent, persistent, well-organized person, like a scientist-professor —somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree.”

The long-lived people among the 1,500 subjects “were individuals with certain constellations of habits and patterns of living” whose patterns did not necessarily match the usual suggestions people make for long life. The patterns were not “relax,” “eat vegetables,” “lose weight,” or “get married,” necessarily. These suggestions, along with much standard medical advice, they explain, are”lifesaving for some” but are “neither effective nor economical for many.”

The authors write that the fortunes spent on health care and fad diets have “dissapointingly little effect on our long-term health and longevity.”

So, what does have a great effect on long-term health and longevity?  Those who lived longer were generally healthier throughout their lives. Most who lived to old age did not beat cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or lung disease; instead, these long-lived folks had, for the most part, avoided diseases.  And it wasn’t simply genetic.  Genes are only a fraction of the equation.

“Genes constitute about one-third of the factors leading to long life,” Friedman explained, while “the other two-thirds have to do with lifestyles and chance.”

One interesting finding was that there is a widespread misconception about stress.  According to Friedman, “People think everyone should take it easy,” but actually, “a hard job that is also stressful can be associated with longevity” because  challenges can make people more involved, encouraging them to work hard, to succeed, to be responsible, and to become more likely to live longer.  However, many people stay in a job they don’t like or don’t do well. That is negative stress, and people in such jobs were more likely to die young.

I was particularly interested to understand why optimism wasn’t a greater longevity indicator than conscientiousness was.  Well, it is explained that people who are overly cheerful and optimistic fail to even consider possible setbacks (they don’t back up their computer files; they don’t take long enough rest periods to recover from surgeries) and thus, often set themselves up for failure.  Conscientious people consider everything.

The study found that conscientious people are not only longer-living because of obvious healthy lifestyles like being likely to wear seat belts, for example; also,  conscientious people place themselves in healthier friendships, better marriages, and healthier work situations.

An interesting set of myths get busted by this book.  Let’s look at a few of the myth-buster gems.

  • Myth:  Worrying is very bad for your health.
  • Myth:  Take it easy and don’t work so hard and you will stay healthier.
  • Myth:  Thinking happy thoughts reduces stress and leads to long life.
  • Myth:  Religious people live longer
  • Myth:  If you have hobbies like gardening, walking, and cooking, take up more
    vigorous forms of exercise.
  • Myth:  Get married and you will live longer.
  • Myth:  Retire as soon as you can and play more golf to live longer.
  • Myth:  If your child is serious, encourage him to be more spontaneous and have more fun.

So, prudence, persistence and conscientiousness are better indicators of probable longevity than vegetable intake or an optimistic outlook.  Who would have guessed that marathon running and positive affirmations would be routed by generalized prudence?  Who would ever have guessed that in the race for health and long life, being very thin would be less important that being very wise?

Some of us thought quite the opposite.

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