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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published October 18 2012

The secret to a long life? Don’t be too carefree, says study

GRAND FORKS – Want to live a long, healthy and happy life?

It’s not all about broccoli or jogging or vitamins, says a noted researcher, who re-examined and updated results of a famous longevity study that started in the 1920s to determine that much of contemporary advice on aging well is wrong.

Wearing your seat belt, watching stress, being cheerful and optimistic – all may be factors in making one’s life more enjoyable, Leslie Martin and co-author Howard Friedman wrote in “The Longevity Project.”

But their study findings “clearly revealed that the best childhood personality predictor of longevity was conscientiousness,” they wrote. People who had aged well tended to have shown – already as children and consistently through life – the qualities of prudence, persistence and organization.

The children more likely to live long and healthy lives were “somewhat obsessive,” in fact, “and not at all carefree.”

Martin will be the featured speaker Saturday at the annual Northern Lights Psychology Conference at UND. Her address and a panel discussion on mental health challenges facing older people are free and open to the public.

A 1921 start

“The Longevity Project” attracted considerable attention when it was published in April 2011, a complex, nuanced and “myth-busting” reassessment of why some people live long and healthy lives while others die young.

It was based on a Stanford University project that for decades had followed more than 1,500 “bright San Francisco 11-year-olds” chosen in 1921 to study social predictors of intellectual leadership, the New York Times reported in a review.

The original researcher interviewed the children, members of their families and their teachers, following up with the children every few years.

While most of the children had died by the time Martin and Friedman became involved, they found death certificates and interviewed the study participants’ survivors.

Why did they declare “conscientiousness” to be such a critical factor?

“Conscientious people are more likely to live healthy lifestyles, to not smoke or drink to excess, wear seat belts, follow doctors’ orders and take medication as prescribed,” the Times’ reviewer wrote, citing study findings.

Conscientious people also are more inclined to have healthier relationships with friends, coworkers and family members, including spouses.

But conscientious people also seemed to be less susceptible to many diseases, and not just those that could be linked to risky behavior, such as smoking. The researchers are still trying to determine whether there is a clear physiological connection.

Exercise is good if not carried to extremes, the researchers said. Work hard and responsibly at something you enjoy. Build and maintain a strong social network.

Sunny outlook

What about all the “chin up” advice of recent years? Having an optimistic outlook may have received too much credit for extending the good life, according to Martin.

“If you’re cheerful, very optimistic, especially in the face of illness and recovery, if you don’t consider the possibility that you might have setbacks, then those setbacks are harder to deal with,” she told the Times last year.

“If you’re one of those people who think everything’s fine – ‘no need to back up those computer files’ – the stress of failure, because you haven’t been more careful, is harmful,” said. “You almost set yourself up for more problems.”

To read the book’s introduction, go to www.HowardSFriedman.com/longevityproject.

Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald