“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” — Isaac Asimov
The Longevity Project
Over 1,500 of the most promising and brightest boys and girls were recruited in 1921 by Lewis Terman. Unfortunately, he died in 1956, but the study continued for decades afterwards. All participants were born around 1910 and studied for 80 years or until they died. It was then possible to figure out who lived the longest and why.
Although each child was potentially gifted, not all lived long and happy lives. Fortunately, analysis of this extensive data has taken place for over twenty years at The University of California in Riverside.
The study’s significant findings are summarised in the 2011 book “The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long-Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study” by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin. I listened to this audiobook recently and was quite surprised with some of its key results:
1. Living honestly is essential.
- “A key part of one of the healthy paths is called ‘The High Road.’ Such an individual has good friends, meaningful work and a happy, responsible marriage. The thoughtful planning and perseverance that such people invest in their careers and relationships promote long life naturally and automatically, even when challenges arise.”
2. Please do NOT send your children to school earlier than their peers.
- “Starting formal schooling at a very early age was not a great idea for most. Children need unstructured playtime, and they need to get along with their peers; starting young seemed to alienate them.”
3. Illness is NOT random.
- “Those that live longer are often healthier throughout their years and (managed to) avoid serious ailments altogether.”
- “Those who are healthier tend to be happier, and those who are happier tend to be healthier.”
- “It’s never too late to choose a healthier path. The first step is to throw away the lists and stop worrying about worrying.”
- “Thinking of making changes as taking ‘steps’ is a grand strategy. You can’t change major things about yourself overnight. But making small changes, and repeating those steps, can eventually create that path to a longer life.”
4. Good marriages lead to better health, especially for men.
- “Marriage is only health-promoting for men who are well-suited to marriage and have a good marriage. For others, it is more complicated.”
- “Women who stayed single, were widowed or got divorced often thrived more than women who were married to troublesome husbands.”
- “Men who stayed divorced were at high risk for premature mortality.”
5. Divorce during childhood predicts early death in adulthood.
- “The strongest social predictor is parental divorce, as it often pushes the child into many unhealthy directions, including heavier drinking and smoking, less education, lower career achievements and a greater risk of later divorce themselves.”
6. Follow the long-term recommendations that are right for you.
- “The long-lived did not find the secret to health in broccoli, medical tests, vitamins or jogging. Rather they were individuals with certain constellations of habits and patterns of living. Their personalities, career trajectories and social lives proved highly relevant to their long-term health, often in ways we did not expect.”
- “You need to make changes that will be sustainable in the long term. We say, if you don’t like jogging, don’t jog! Instead, begin doing things that you enjoy and can keep up, like a walk at lunchtime with a friend or vigorous gardening.”
- “The usual piecemeal suggestions of relax, eat vegetables, lose weight and get married are lifesaving for some, but neither effective nor economical for many.”
- “Some of the minutiae of what people think will help us lead long, healthy lives, such as worrying about the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the foods we eat, actually are red herrings, distracting us from the major pathways. When we recognise our long-term healthy and unhealthy patterns, we can begin to maximise the healthy patterns.”
7. Conscientiousness is the most critical personality factor for longevity.
- “Conscientiousness is very important. Unconscientious boys, even bright ones, are more likely to grow up to have poor marriages, smoke more, drink more, achieve less education, be relatively unsuccessful at work, and die younger.”
- “Conscientious people stay healthier and live longer for three reasons:
- First, they do more things to protect their health.
- Secondly, they are biologically predisposed to be healthier, and
- Lastly, they end up in more beneficial situations and relationships.”
8. Working hard can be helpful for you.
- “Those who worked the hardest often lived the longest…especially if they were involved in meaningful careers and were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves.”
- “It was clear that working hard to overcome adversity or biting off more than you can chew — and then chewing it — does not generally pose a health risk. Striving to accomplish your goals, setting new aims when milestones are reached, and staying engaged and productive is what those heading to a long life tend to do. The long-lived didn’t shy away from hard work; the opposite seemed true.”
9. Resilience is protective for health.
- “Depending on the circumstances, a traumatic event such as parental divorce could contribute to a longer life if the child learned to be resilient.”
- “Resilience is important, and can be achieved via a sense of personal accomplishment, the strength of character and maturity.”
- “Combat veterans are less likely to live long lives, but surprisingly the psychological stress of war itself is not necessarily a major health threat. Rather, it is a cascade of unhealthy patterns that sometimes follows. Those who find meaning in a traumatic experience and can reestablish a sense of security about the world usually return to a healthy pathway.”
10. Human connection is essential.
- “Having pets can improve well-being, but they do not help people live longer and are not a substitute for friends.”
- “People who feel loved and cared for report a better sense of well-being.”
- “The clearest health benefit of social relationships comes from being involved with and helping others.”
- “It is important to be well-integrated into your community.”
- “Connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over a rigorous exercise program.”
- “The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become — healthy or unhealthy.”