Personality traits of long-lived people
Think about other people your age. Some probably look 10 years older than you, while others appear 10 years younger. People age at different rates, and some live much longer than others. Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine, ponders these facts daily. His Longevity Genes Project studied more than 500 healthy participants ranging from 95 to 112 years old. The results? Half were overweight or obese, 60 percent of men and 30 percent of women had smoked for many years, and few exercised. Only 2 percent were vegetarians. “As a group, they didn’t do what we ask our patients to do,” Barzilai said. The biggest predictor of living to 100 was how long people’s parents had lived, not lifestyle factors. But Barzilai and other researchers are also studying how personality affects longevity.
-- By Teresa Bergen for MSN Healthy Living
Longevity is difficult to study because a thorough research project can take longer than the researchers’ life spans. Psychologists Howard S. Friedman and Leslie Martin got around this by continuing research started by former Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman. In 1921, Dr. Terman began studying 1,500 children born around 1910. Friedman and Martin studied these subjects in their old age and published their findings in “The Longevity Project.”
Conscientiousness is a leading indicator of longevity, Martin says. This trait includes orderliness, prudence, persistence and responsibility. “Conscientious people also tend to have a lot of satisfaction in their lives because they set tasks and accomplish things,” Martin says. But she warns against being too focused on a single behavior. “If you’re responsible and meet goals but have a messy desk, I wouldn’t be worried.” Want to change your behavior? Take baby steps, Martin advises, and hang around conscientious people.
Meaningful connections to others may add years to your life. Love promotes positive emotions. Isolation can cause negative emotions that lead to stress, inflammation and cardiovascular disease.
Martin advises people to find connection through their interests. Join a book club, volunteer at your local animal shelter, or do something else that provides both meaning and social interaction. “People who interacted more frequently with others live longer,” she says.
University of Michigan social psychologist Sara Konrath emphasizes the importance of both giving and receiving social support. This trait differs between genders. “Men are socialized to not be comfortable receiving help,” Konrath says. “It makes them feel not masculine. Whereas women are comfortable giving and receiving support.” She believes this is a socialized trait, rather than innate, and that men can improve their health by learning to receive more support.
Despite many centenarians having difficult lives, they’re remarkably optimistic, Barzilai says. But were they always like that? Reports from family members suggest some study participants were more cantankerous when younger. “We say that personality doesn’t change with age, up to age 70. But that doesn’t mean personality doesn’t change with age between 70 and 100.” Barzilai plans to study the children of centenarians to see how their personalities change in old age.
Since many studies stress the positive effects of a positive outlook, Martin was surprised to find the opposite. “Most cheerful, optimistic kids have significantly shorter lives than the kids who weren’t so optimistic,” she says. Studies of positivity generally focus on optimism in the face of crises, she says, times when thinking positive makes a difference. But the unfailingly optimistic evaluate risks differently than warier individuals, which may lead to drinking, smoking, and foregoing medications, vaccinations or seat belts.
Konrath’s research reveals that your motivation for volunteering dictates whether helping others will increase your longevity or not. If your reasons are other-oriented -- such as sincerely wanting to help, or volunteering because it’s important to people you admire -- your mortality risk will be lower four years later. But if you volunteer for self-oriented reasons, such as gaining work experience, volunteering doesn’t affect your mortality risk. “I’m surprised about how big these findings are,” Konrath says. “Just wanting to help others seems to be associated with better health.”
Why should this make a difference? Konrath’s theory revolves around oxytocin, the reproductive hormone that bonds mother and baby. Konrath hypothesizes that helping others engages a caregiving behavioral system in the body that deactivates stress hormones and revs up production of oxytocin and other restorative hormones.
The Longevity Project gleaned mixed findings on marriage. “Being in a stable, healthy marriage is certainly a good thing for everyone,” Martin says. However, gender differences were pronounced. “Women are more likely on average to have confidantes and close friends, to get advice and support,” she says. “In a marriage relationship, the wife often plays that role for man. In divorce or widowhood, he’s going to get smacked harder by that loss.” Men can mitigate their longevity risk by remarrying.
Women bounced back from divorce or widowhood better than men. “It seemed as if women who got rid of their troublesome husbands stayed healthy,” Friedman told the American Psychological Association’s journal Monitor on Psychology. Steadily single men and especially women rated almost as high for longevity as the happily married.
However, divorce leads to unhealthy behaviors in a couple’s children, adversely affecting their longevity.
While chronic physiological disturbance is detrimental, the stress caused by hard work and a demanding career bolsters longevity, according to Friedman. Some participants in the Longevity Project had both long and healthy lives and stressful jobs. Norris Bradbury, who participated in the study, spent his career directing Los Alamos National Laboratory during the Cold War. Not relaxing. But Bradbury lived to a healthy 88. Friedman says hard workers who found meaning in their jobs lived the longest. Retirement may not be the answer for longevity seekers.
People who not only worked hard but were successful in their chosen career had the best results. The Longevity Project found that their most successful male participants averaged five more years of life than the least successful. Happiness didn’t cause longevity, but achievement and satisfaction in life correlated with extra years.
Just the right amount of neuroticism
The Tokyo Centenarian Study, led by YukieMasui of Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology, followed 70 cognitively healthy Tokyo residents ages 100 to 106. The most neurotic study participants had more mental health problems and depression, adversely affecting mortality.
However, Martin says just the right amount of neuroticism is good. People who worry a little -- but not too much -- live longer. Slightly worried men in the Longevity Project had a 50 percent decrease in mortality a few years after their spouses died, she says. “I think for those men, we sort of envision it as a Woody Allen type character,” Martin says. “Someone who was worried enough to get the prostate exam, drive carefully, eat a healthy meal.” But Martin’s not talking about catastrophizers, people who make everything into a big deal. “That’s a real risk factor,” she says.
Openness to new experiences
The Tokyo Centenarian Study also identified openness to new experience as a personality trait in both male and female centenarians. Researchers theorized that this openness helped them adapt to challenging problems of growing very old and outliving friends and family. However, since openness is a relatively vague, subjective and hard-to-measure trait, it’s underrepresented in scientific literature about longevity.