C.R. writes:

I was scanning the headlines for articles about marriage and divorce and came across this little blog post by Christopher Shea at the Wall Street Journal. In it, he talks about psychologist Howard S. Friedman’s book The Longevity Project (which he co-authored with psychologist Leslie R. Martin).

The original “Longevity Project” (in case the name sounds familiar to you) is—the study is still ongoing—a research project first created by psychologist Lewis Terman in 1921. In the study, 1500 children were chosen and followed from childhood through adulthood (and, when it occurred, death) in order to assess which factors led to long life.

Dr. Friedman himself followed some of these people for the past twenty years in order to identify, if possible, character and behavioral traits that might contribute to longevity (or its reverse). He writes in the introduction to his book:

Surprisingly, the long-lived among [the study subjects] did not find the secret to health in broccoli, medical tests, vitamins, or jogging. Rather, they were individuals with certain constellations of habits and patterns of living. Their personalities, career trajectories, and social lives proved highly relevant to their long-term health, often in ways we did not expect.

The constellations of habits Friedman and Martin identify, are sometimes really surprising. In fact, they really destroyed a lot of my preconceptions. This all made sense when I began to think about the elderly people I’ve known.

For example, one of my grandmothers, who lived until she was 102 years old, was definitely a worrier. She worried about everything and everyone. Most of all, she worried about her loved ones to the point of, perhaps, obsession. Her worry definitely expressed itself in anxiety. Now, this doesn’t sound like a recipe for longevity, but she was very long lived. My personal belief is if the nursing home where she was living at the time didn’t have an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease (a disease which is particularly dangerous for the elderly), she might still be alive today.

So was my dear worry-wort grandmother an exception to the rule that worry shortens your life? Not really. Friedman’s research identifies several myths including: Worrying is very bad for your health. Apparently, it’s not!

He also says that the clichéd but popular belief that “Thinking happy thoughts reduces stress and leads to long life.” is also a myth.

Now, medical research appears to show that genes are the one of the solid reasons for longevity (especially when filtering out accidental and environmental causes of early death), but many believe at least some of these studies are deeply flawed. Also, it is pretty hard to isolate out genes vs. environmental clues.

You might have heard about the Abkhasian people of the Caucasus. They eat plenty of veggies and fruits (though not, as once believed, tons of yogurt. In 1998 a 121 year old man told the NY Times he never ate yogurt. Never!). They are very long-lived, but is it the diet? The pure air? Their activity levels? Their genes? Their culture, religious beliefs or “national” character? Or a combination of factors? It’s hard to say.

I think that changing times dramatically impacts the outcomes of longevity studies. My personal opinion, which is grounded in teachings from the traditional Jewish spiritual path, is that how much you eat is also important. I agree with those who say if you restrict calorie intake (to a certain extent), you live longer. In terms of health and possibly longevity, smaller portions might be as important (or maybe even more important) than what you eat. The idea is to eat less. A lot less. (VERY hard to do in these days of super-sized portions and even larger plates and bowls).

The grandmother who I describe above, barely ate at all—I simply do not recall her ingesting any food other than a tiny nibble of chocolate or the occasional “salad” (a sliced cucumber and unripe tomato). Did this contribute to her longevity? I don’t know.

My other grandmother lived until she was 99 years old. She didn’t exercise much if at all, she never ate a piece of lettuce darker than iceberg, her idea of a snack was a piece of (homemade) coffee cake and coffee, yet she was incredibly quick-witted even through her later years. (She did the NY Times crossword puzzle…in ink, and she always beat me at Scrabble.)

By today’s standards her later years were decidedly sedentary and her diet, well, less than healthy. But she never ate fast food and she never ate until she was full—she seemed to purposely under-eat. True, one of her parents lived a very long time (her father until over 100), so the “genes” may or may not have been there.  I would also say she was easily stressed. She is another example of someone who simply doesn’t meet our preconceived notions of what leads to a long life.

I volunteer to do weekly visits with an elderly woman. She’ll turn 90 in March. She is incredibly bright and reads a lot. She has all her own teeth. She too, is averse to exercising. She is markedly overweight and her diet includes quite a bit of cakes and cookies and ice cream. She isn’t a worrier but she is prone to depression and is taking medication for it. But she is incredibly alert, interested in life and quite good company. Overall, her health is excellent (she suffers from occasional bouts of asthma).

The more I think about the elderly people I know, not one of them really fits my preconceived notions of what kind of person lives a long time. Their personalities are all different. Some are pessimists, some are optimists.Some are worriers, some not. I guess that is what is most surprising.

If you want something far, far richer than my personal ramblings on longevity, above, The Longevity Project has some important insights to offer about what makes for longevity. Also, a bonus is that Dr. Friedman works very hard to avoid bias in determining his findings.