Life's long and winding roads

Jon Sutton interviews Howard Friedman (HF) and Leslie Martin (LM), authors of The Longevity Project, about lessons in living a long life

Yours is a project about longevity, but one which is itself long. Let’s start at the beginning – tell me about the debt you owe to Lewis Terman.

HF: Yes, we have been at this for more than 20 years now, even though our original intention was to spend six months to a year looking at psychosocial predictors of mortality risk. But it turned out that Lewis Terman, starting in 1921, collected a huge amount of fascinating information about these 1500 boys and girls, who were then followed throughout their lives. More than that, Dr Terman had an almost uncanny way of anticipating questions, measures, and variables that would prove to be important throughout 20th century psychology. For example, his questions about marital happiness turned into the basis for many modern scales on this topic. The ratings he collected from parents and teachers about the children’s personalities are so comprehensive that we could factor analyse them, create contemporary measures of personality, and validate them in contemporary samples of Californians. Overall there are more than 10 million pieces of information in the files, collected or generated over more than eight decades. There is simply nothing else like it!

You write that ‘the best childhood personality predictor of longevity is conscientiousness – the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organised person, like a scientist-professor – somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree’. Who wants a kid like that?!

HF: Probably some parents do not want a child like that, and they’re doing a great disservice to the child. The focused, persistent, non-egotistical children went on to become the kinds of adults that most parents dream of – successful in their work, accomplished in their social relations and marriages, making contributions to society, and tending to live longer, healthier lives. Did you want your children to grow up to be lackadaisical jokesters?

Hmm… I see that one of Terman’s participants was Lee Cronbach, who later became well-known in the fields of educational psychology and psychological testing. He seems to have been one of the better advertisements for an accelerated academic schedule.

LM: Overall we found that the children who started formal schooling at a very young age (before age six) went on to live shorter lives; but yes, for every interesting finding that we discovered, there were notable exceptions, like Lee Cronbach. The same pathway through life was not the ideal or healthiest for everyone, but there were substantial regularities that became apparent. We shouldn’t be giving the same advice to everyone, but we do think it’s valuable for each person to understand both the group trends and his or her own trajectories over time, which is why we include a number of self-quizzes for the individual to fill out.

Do you place much stock in Woody Allen’s view that ‘you can live to be a hundred only if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred’?

HF: We found pretty much the opposite. This is one of the many myths we busted in The Longevity Project. The people who lived the longest generally were those who had the most interesting and productive lives. They were very satisfied with what they had achieved. True joy generally came from maturity, not from spur of the moment indulgences. Responsible individuals were given increasing responsibilities, which turned out not only to be fulfilling but also health promoting.

So is happiness overrated, in terms of health and longevity?

LM: This is an example of where a longitudinal, lifespan study helps us to see things in a new light, things that are often overlooked by researchers focused on the short-term. Happiness, health and longevity do tend to go together, but we repeatedly found that it was not the happiness that was causing the good health. Instead, habits, career involvement and social relationships that led to a deeper happiness also led to substantially better health. ‘Cheer up’ is useless advice. ‘Don’t worry’ is rotten advice. The pursuit of happiness is best thought of as the pursuit of accomplishment; not money, but the pursuit of deep involvement with others and of meaningful achievement. We give lots of examples of how this works.

If the project were starting now, would you expect to find different results or just longer lives? And what about if the study were repeated with a broader sample? The children in Terman’s study were all quite intelligent.

HF: We have spent a huge amount of effort trying to see how well our results generalise to other populations, and we are thrilled that they do generalise. Our findings fit well with other, shorter-term studies, and they’re being replicated in new samples and in meta-analyses. For example, meta-analyses in the last few years are confirming just what we have found about the key role for conscientiousness, in samples of all types, involving many thousands of people. Plus, think about it – if every longitudinal study was out of date (and not generalisable) for the next generation, then we could never learn anything of value. We would have to do away with the fields of human development, epidemiology, and even most of medicine.

The findings on marriage perhaps feel particularly subject to cultural/ historical effects – that it’s the happiness of the husband that is key to predicting the health and well-being of both partners.

LM: No, in fact our findings are consistent with the psychophysiological research studies done by various researchers in the past decade or so, which show that wives’ physiological functioning is negatively affected by their husbands’ hostility, but husbands are less likely to be affected by their hostile wives. Furthermore, wives were and are primarily responsible for social networks with others, and so it makes sense that The Longevity Project found that husbands suffered much more than wives when they were divorced or widowed. This is still very much the case today. In fact,

The Longevity Project again and again finds patterns that appear timeless. We think this is because the basic issues of personalities, relationships and work are fundamental when one analyses them in a deep and sophisticated way. The Longevity Project is not a collection of simple findings or headlines; rather it describes long-term pathways to health, thriving and long life.

I find the idea of measurement reactivity in the original participants interesting. They came to realise they were in an important study, and called themselves ‘Terman’s Termites’. Is there any evidence they became competitive about their own intellect?

LM: It is true that some Termites seemed disappointed when they realised later in life that they had not lived up to their high intellectual potential, and this may have been exaggerated a bit because they knew they were in the study. But most bright adults would sense such failures anyway. Our graduate students decided to call us researchers Termanators, and if your logic about competition holds true, now that the focus of the study is longevity, we should be expecting a call from Hollywood. It’s only 50 miles west of Riverside. Brad Pitt should play Howard…

HF: …and Angelina Jolie should play Leslie!

There’s a sense that you’re wresting the key to long life back from medicine, and putting psychology to the centre stage – where perhaps it would have been before the biological focus on infection. etc?

HF: Medicine performs best when dealing with acute illnesses or trauma. It sometimes does fairly well when dealing with chronic illnesses. But medicine has very little to say about finding your own individual path to staying optimally healthy. Physicians generally aren’t trained for it, and drugs and surgeries cannot accomplish it. People sometimes think we are criticising medicine, but we are not. Rather, we are providing a solution to a problem that many scholars have identified concerning the very real limits of the traditional biomedical approach to health promotion. Our work is closer to public health or to epidemiology than it is to medicine, but we focus on the individual. It is, after all, the individual person who thrives and survives, or deteriorates and succumbs.

It certainly seems like a study that reaches into all corners of our discipline – for example, insights from occupational psychology on overbearing bosses, from health on adherence to medication, from clinical in terms of how we interpret the world and our place in it.

HF: Yes, the beauty of focusing on individual personalities, behaviour patterns, family and social relationships, and developmental trajectories across time is that these are the fundamental elements of psychology, which unfold in somewhat predictable ways.

If it all depends on where you are on life’s pathway, and what situations you are currently facing, can you still pull out much in the way of general lessons?

LM: Absolutely! People often get ‘stuck in a rut’ but this is usually not because they cannot make changes, but because they don’t think they can, or don’t want to bother. Some things, such as personality, will take a good deal of time and effort to change, but other things, such as social networks and community engagement, are relatively easy to adjust. The Longevity Project helps us by highlighting what’s important for health and longevity – for example, connecting with and helping others – and what’s not so important – for example, obsessing over a rigorous exercise programme. Many of the fascinating people we profile are great examples of the fact that there are many healthy paths – not just one.

I was intrigued by your findings on the ‘Chicken Littles’ who think the sky is falling in. These ‘catastrophisers’, particularly the men, die younger. It reminded me of Doug Carroll’s research on the spikes in cardiac arrest following major sporting events! To what extent do you think associations like this are due to acute events, to what extent chronic?

HF: It is probably neither acute nor chronic stress that is the main culprit here. From using the death certificates we collected to determine cause of death, we concluded that catastrophising puts men at special risk for injury death – homicides, suicides, accidents and putting yourself into dangerous situations. Of course, unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking sometimes play a role here as well.

I’m very high on conscientiousness, low on emotional sociability, neuroticism and catastrophising… what personality changes can I make to ensure I shuffle off this mortal coil as soon as possible?

LM: There are no money-back guarantees offered in The Longevity Project. Conscientiousness was easily the strongest personality predictor of long life, so being high on that dimension does not bode well, however, for your imminent departure.

I imagine I may well have had enough by about 80. When would you like to live to?

HF: You may change your view when you're a healthy 79. Anyway, we are writing as scientists and we don’t mess with phenomenology in The Longevity Project. Are you asking for a sequel?

Perhaps, with more about if and how we can change? Psychologists like Timothy Judge would say that our capacity to change is fairly limited anyway. What are your views?

HF: We agree that quick change– in the short term – is difficult and limited. However, that is another benefit of an eight-decade study; we see substantial change over time. Although there is of course a core element of stability from personality and social structure, individuals definitely do change across the decades. Some mature, while others never grow up. Some develop and deepen friendships, while others either never do so or made great friends from the beginning.

Are there any specific leisure activities you would advise taking up?

LM: Yes – something that requires you to move around, and that you truly enjoy! The Longevity Project found some stability in physical activity level across the lifespan, so there is no single recommendation that fits everyone in terms of specific leisure activities. Our most important finding here is that physical activities that could be maintained through middle-age were key to later-life health and longevity. So we say, find something that you like and can maintain; almost anything that gets you up and out of your chair.

I was interested to read that the gender gap in longevity isn’t necessarily about chromosomes, it’s about masculinity and femininity.

HF: We certainly do not deny that genes and biology play an important role in longevity. But The Longevity Project is all about the behavioural, social and epigenetic/interactional influences. The eye-opener in our findings here was that the more masculine men and the more masculine women had an increased mortality risk, while the more feminine women and the more feminine men were relatively protected. Part of what helps women to live longer is that women are, on average, more feminine than men.

You call Terman a ‘test-everything empiricist’. Is there anything he didn’t ask that you wish he had?

HF: Terman had medical examinations done by physicians on the children, but he didn’t collect much physiological medical information after that. Of course, many things like cholesterol were unknown in those days, but it would have been great to have lifespan measures of blood pressure, heart rate, weight changes and body fat.

After such a long investigation, what’s your short take-home message?

HF: I think Leslie would agree that the single most important bit of advice we can offer tip-seekers and list-makers is – ‘Throw away your lists!’

We live in a self-help society full of lists and resolutions: Lose weight. Sleep enough hours. Hit the gym. Cut out the fast food. Quit smoking. Drink less. Etc. You know the list. So why isn’t everyone healthy? For most people, endless lists don’t produce the desired effects. After losing four pounds they’re off their diets and gaining eight pounds. They hit the gym for a month but then tire out and return to the TV couch. Parties, hot dogs and six-packs creep back in. Some can’t fall asleep because they’re worrying about how much they should sleep!

LM: That’s right. The healthiest individuals in The Longevity Project didn’t have lists of health advice. Rather, they lived meaningful, committed lives. They worked hard. They achieved much for their families. They nurtured close relationships. They were persistent, responsible and successful. They were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves.

So read the book… it’s a quick read for something packed with information from so many years of study. Take the self-quizzes and examine the case histories in order to understand your own long-term patterns and trajectories relevant to health. Then, probably the best way to get yourself on a healthy pathway – one of healthy long-term patterns – is to associate with other healthy, active, involved individuals, especially those relevant to your desired healthy lifestyle. A key lesson of The Longevity Project is to join social groups and select hobbies that will lead you to a whole host of consequential and naturally healthy activities. It is heartening to know that embracing the lessons of The Longevity Project and persistently striving for a socially richer and more productive life will significantly increase the odds of a long and happy life as well.

Box 1: From The Longevity Project

The problem with most studies of centenarians or other long-lived individuals is that there is no proper control group. That is, we do not really want to know if 100-year-olds are especially cheerful or easy-going or friendly. Rather, we actually need to know how they were and how they lived decades earlier! The Longevity Project examined just such lifespan information. For example, one of the Terman participants who lived to be 100 was Ancel Keys, the scientist most responsible for the idea that a high-fat diet leads to high cholesterol and heart disease. Another 100-year-old participant, currently still alive and in good health, has not yet been publicly identified (‘Mr Cent’), but shares most of the lifelong trajectory with Keys.

As a toddler, Ancel Keys survived the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. During the Second World War, Keys, well regarded for his expertise in human physiology, was asked by the US government to develop a food ration pack that was nutritious and compact, and he came up with the K-ration. (Interestingly, even though Keys was known for his work on cholesterol, he himself did not avoid red meat; he just limited how much of it he ate each week.) Surprisingly, neither Keys nor his fellow centenarian Mr Cent believed in formal exercise. Yet as a young man Ancel worked first in a lumber camp, and then as a gold miner, a ship’s oiler, a manager, and a scientist. After receiving his doctorate in biology, he continued to travel ardently, even going to the Chilean Andes to study the physiological effects of high altitudes. The Terman participants, even those who stayed healthy like Keys and Cent, didn’t know about running shoes, treadmills or marathons. As he aged, Ancel Keys spent many years doing the active gardening that he so enjoyed. Mr Cent, who likewise stays active, flatly says, ‘Don’t exercise.’

Both Keys and Mr Cent also illustrate what The Longevity Project found about the importance of marriage to men (but not women). A real eye-opener was that most of the men who lived in good health to old age generally had strong, stable marriages, and sure enough, Keys was survived by his wife, and Mr Cent is still married (over 70 years).

As our general analyses of the sample also showed, both men stayed involved with their work and with other people, with Mr Cent disapproving when his son fully retired (in his 70s). These benefits of involvement and challenge worked well for the women too. For example, The Longevity Project details the case of Shelley Smith Mydans. Mydans went to work for Life magazine. Covering World War II in Asia, she was captured by the Japanese in Manila and spent many months in a prisoner-of-war camp. She later continued working hard as a reporter and even wrote novels, while raising a family. Yet she lived a long life and died in 2002 at age 86, with four grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

Were the long-lived happy? Yes, but happiness was not causing their health; rather, the dedicated and meaningful ways they lived their lives helped keep them both happy and healthy. We could see it throughout the decades.

The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight Decade Study was published by Hay House in July. Also see the Facebook page with lots of discussion about the Longevity Project at tinyurl.com/3ko26tm

 

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