Thursday, January 17, 2013

How to live a long, healthy life

by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

It’s not a matter of dwelling on death, nor is it a quest for the "magic potion" that leads to eternal life, it is, instead, a realistic examination of the facts: what are the factors most likely to guarantee a long and healthy life? Yes, it is a search for a guarantee.

The search is over! And even though it cannot be considered a "magic potion" simply because it is not an instant remedy, it is something that can be encouraged or nurtured if begun early. Not surprisingly, the "remedy" is usually all in place and being used (or not used) by the time any concern over death or the quest for a "magic potion" takes place.

To provide the context for this essay, let me supply readers with the source of this discovery. The book, The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study (Hudson Street Press, 2011), was written by two highly-qualified, highly-credible research psychologists, Drs. Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin.

The book or its authors is not, however, sufficient justification for suggesting that the search is over. It is, in part, the impressive study and its results that merit close scrutiny.

The study was begun by Stanford University psychologist Dr. Lewis Terman in 1921. (He died in 1956 before the study was complete.) It involved 1500 bright boys and girls born around 1910. Although most have died, Friedman and Martin "have documented when and how they died, and . . . have studied their lives in meticulous detail" (p. ix).

There are no known longitudinal studies of this magnitude which makes this study unique, and, as the authors explain, "One of the best ways to avoid research traps and biases is to follow individuals for their entire lives and see which characteristics influence subsequent qualities, behaviors, and outcomes" (p. xi).

When you discover the results of the study, you will easily see why they are not a "magic potion." As the authors explain, "many of the insights that emerged are helpful not only to adults looking to get on a healthier life path but also to those hoping to set their children on a good track. Many of our findings can help people rethink the potential long-term effects of their parenting decisions . . ." (p. xiii).

The study was continued by others after Dr. Terman’s death, and the authors of this book began serious work on the study in 1990. No essay of this length can provide a fair understanding of what this study entailed, and reading The Longevity Project is highly recommended. What is important to know is that the authors used "a number of scientific techniques to . . . validate old scales and measures from contemporary samples of young people" (p. xv).

Also noteworthy in drawing conclusions from the Terman study, Friedman and Martin "have always compared [their] findings with what is more broadly known from other research" (p. xv). In addition, it is helpful to know, the subjects in the study "were engineers, businesspeople, housewives, lawyers, administrators, writers, teachers, and all sorts of other blue- and white-collar workers" (p. xv).

Conscientiousness is the key. Now, to give you some understanding of the breadth and depth of this term, I looked it up on Wikipedia. It is "the trait of being painstaking and careful, or the quality of acting according to the dictates of one’s conscience." Of course, if the definition ended there, most people would consider themselves conscientious. It is what painstaking and careful mean that can make a difference.

"[Conscientiousness] includes such elements as self-discipline, carefulness, thoroughness, organization, deliberation (the tendency to think carefully before acting), and need for achievement. It is an aspect of," the definition at Wikipedia continues, "what has traditionally been called character. Conscientious individuals are generally hard working and reliable. When taken to an extreme, they may also be workaholics, perfectionists, and compulsive in their behavior. People who are low on conscientiousness," Wikipedia says, "are not necessarily laxy or immoral, but they tend to be more laid back, less goal oriented, and less driven by success."

Why does this definition go on forever? Friedman and Martin state, "Conscientiousness, which was the best predictor of longevity when measured in childhood, also turned out to be the best personality predictor of long life when measured in adulthood. The young adults who were thrifty, persistent, detail oriented, and responsible lived the longest" (p. 15).

You may wonder why conscientious people stay healthier and live longer? It shouldn’t be a total surprise after reading the definition, however, these are the three reasons given by Friedman and Martin: 1) "Conscientious people do more things to protect their health and engage in fewer activities that are risky. They are less likely to smoke, drink to excess, abuse drugs, or drive too fast. They are more likely to wear seat belts and follow doctors’ orders. They are not necessarily risk averse but they tend to be sensible in evaluating how far to push the envelope" (pp. 15-16).

"The second, and least obvious, reason for the health benefits of conscientiousness," the authors continue, "is that some people are biologically predisposed to be both more conscientious and healthier. Not only do they tend to avoid violent deaths and illnesses linked to smoking and drinking, but conscientious individuals are less prone to a whole host of diseases, not just those caused by dangerous habits" (p. 16).

The third reason conscientious people live longer, Friedman and Martin considered to be the most intriguing one. "Having a conscientious personality leads you into healthier situations and relationships. In other words," the authors continue, "it is not only that conscientious people have better health habits and healthier brains, but also that they find their way to happier marriages, better friendships, and healthier work situations. That’s right, conscientious people create healthy, long-life pathways for themselves" (p. 16).

When I looked over Friedman and Martin"s "Self-Assessment: A Key Personality Component" self-test (pp. 10-12), I thought about how deeply entrenched many of these behaviors become as people grow older: being prepared, leaving belongings around, planning your work in detail, making a mess of things, getting chores done right away, forgetting to put things back in their proper place, liking order, shirking duties, following a schedule, and being persistent in the accomplishment of your work and ends.

It may be that the best predictor for living a long and healthy life was really known all along and comes as no surprise. On-the-other-hand, it appears that the ingredients for living a long and healthy life are fairly precise and specific, and if that is your goal, you know what to do.

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At the Live Fit Blog , the article, The Benefits of Being a Conscientious Person, outlines seven traits: 1) hard working, 2) doing the right thing, 3) doing things the right way, 4) striving for perfection, 5) being stubborn, 6) being detail oriented, and 7) being prudent.

At the blog , there is a brief summary of a relevant article: Margaret L. Kern, Howard S. Friedman (2008). Do conscientious individuals live longer? A quantitative review. This scholarly article appeared in the journal Health Psychology, volume 27, issue 5, and appears on pages 505-512.

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Copyright January 17, 2013, by And Then Some Publishing LLC

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