The longevity project – psychosocial factors that affect health

The longevity project is a long term study that followed the lives of 1500 children from the age of ten over a period of eight decades. The study was initiated by the psychologist prof. Terman in 1921, with other researches continuing the work of tracking these children through their adult life after he passed away. Prof.  Terman was very diligent in his approach and collected a vast trove of information about the background, upbringing and families of the children he chose. While Professor Terman started the study in a quest to understand intellectual leadership, his detailed work, and the detailed tracking of 1500 people through out their lives yields rich information about many facets of Human development. The book ” the longevity project” focuses on what the study can teach us about health and longevity. The study looks at longevity as a reliable indication of health, more so than many other studies based on subjective self reporting. The study comes to some fascinating conclusions that at time run counter to commonly accepted notions.

Among the many findings of the study that I found most compelling or surprising:

  • The most important personality trait that predicts long life and health is being conscientious ;  being prudent and  persistent. This was a very statistically significant result. This runs counter to today’s accepted wisdom that optimism cheerfulness and lack of stress can lead to a longer life. You can be a dour contentiousness person and you statistically have a chance to live longer than the cheerful optimist.
  •  Exercise in childhood and adolescence does not predict health and longevity later in life, but exercise  in middle age does. So even if you were a couch potato as a child, it is beneficial  to start exercising at an older age.
  • The happiness of husband in a marriage is a much better predictor of health and longevity of both  husband and wife, than the wife’s happiness. ( No explanation for that one, unfortunately.)
  • A person’s social network is an important factor that contributes to one’s health and longevity. What counts is not how much you feel loved, but  how much you feel needed and the sheer volume of your social network.
  • People that are accomplished in their career tend to live longer, even if they work very hard under stress for many years.
  • A parent’s death, although traumatic and devastating  for a child, does not affect their longevity and health later. Divorce of parents does  have a detrimental effect on children’s health and longevity . That does not mean that couples “need to stay together for the children”. Living in a stressful environment is not good either.
  •  A fulfilling sex life  predicts longevity, even after controlling for general happiness in the marriage.
  •  Hand writing of future physicians and lawyers  was illegible relative to their peers even as children…

Food for thought.
The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study