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The Science of Living Long & Well: The Longevity Project

By Trena-Winans-Bagnall, Senior Services Education & Community Outreach Director.

It is incredibly rare for a study to follow people long enough to tell us what it truly takes to live a long and healthy life. Typically, studies find people who are already aged and attempt to work backwards to figure out what went right. One study stands alone in following a large group of people over an 80-year span. This study was named The Longevity Project. It began in 1921 and followed 1500 people through the years, continuing even now with those who are still alive. This study looked at factors such as personality traits, health behaviors, and social interactions. Some of the findings were quite surprising and instructive!

Personality traits were assessed early in life and confirmed in adulthood as still being predominant characteristics. Conscientiousness, defined as being responsible, prudent, persistent, and with lack of impulsivity came out as the best personality trait for long life. From childhood through adulthood, the conscientious had a lower risk of dying at any point in time with the upper quartile about 25% less likely to die by age 70. Conscientious personality types were less likely to smoke or be heavy drinkers, and were more stable in jobs and relationships.

One of the bigger surprises was that people with a cheerful, optimistic personality were at 20% increased risk of dying throughout their lifespan! Analysts theorized that although when facing a crisis, the cheerful were more likely to overcome, as a lifespan approach, there can be too much of a good thing. This personality may allow feelings of invincibility, leading people to take greater risks. The optimists were more likely to be smokers, heavier drinkers, and take up riskier hobbies. Some recognition that things may not always go right is important to our longevity.

The third major personality trait was neuroticism, or the tendency to be anxious, high-strung, and worry. This trait was split along gender lines. Women are best off if they are high in conscientious traits and low in neurotic traits. Men, however, seem to benefit from some neurotic tendencies. Men facing a crisis, such as the death of a spouse, had a 50 % higher probability of survival afterward if they were more neurotic. The theory is that men who worried more were more likely to take care of themselves, even without reminders from a spouse.

Another element that was studied was social life. Here, it appears the number of interactions is more important than how someone feels about their social life. The more frequent the interactions, the better. The greatest benefit came if some of the interactions involved helping others.

Religion seemed to be beneficial for women attaining longer life, but for these women, religion was also a big part of their social life and included volunteering to help others. Similar results were found among those who actively helped secular groups. The results were less conclusive for men as related to religious involvement.

According to Dr Leslie Martin, Professor of Public Health at Loma Linda University, following are some of the key takeaways from the Longevity Project:

  • —Marriage may be good for men’s health, but it doesn’t really make a difference for women. Men who remained in long-term marriages were likely to live to age 70 or longer whereas less than 1/3 of divorced men were likely to live to 70. In contrast, women who divorced and did not remarry lived nearly as long as those who stayed steadily married.
  • — Be conscientious
  • — Don’t worry if you’re a worrier. This may help you plan ahead and avoid unhealthy behaviors.
  • — Working hard at something you care about is good—especially something you believe in or are passionate about! Continually productive people lived much longer than their more laid-back comrades.
  • — If you retire, find another passion to pour yourself into. Do something you find meaningful.
  • — Physical activity is very important but it doesn’t matter what it is—anything that gets you moving!
  • — Strengthen social ties with your family, friends, and co-workers. Make a concerted effort!
  • — Pets may improve well-being, but they are not a substitute for human friends and are not associated with a longer life.
  • — Hang out with people who have the trait you seek. Their traits will tend to rub off on you!
  • — Live a purposeful life
  • — Help other people!