20-year study turns rules for longevity on their heads

Bas relief of Greek goddess Atropos cutting the thread of life. Photo: Tom Oates via Wikipedia

A 20-year study of human longevity has major implications for Costa Rica, which likes to style itself incorrectly as the world’s happiest country.

Those participants who were the most cheerful and had the best sense of humor as kids lived shorter lives, on average, than those who were less cheerful and joking, said the study released by the University of California, Riverside. It was the most prudent and persistent individuals who stayed healthiest and lived the longest, researchers concluded.

Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula has been designated a so-called blue zone by best selling author Dan Buettner and others. Buettner and his Quest Network Inc. did a television documentary on the area after a visit in 2007.

Buettner says he studies the world’s longest lived and happiest people and tells others their secrets. However, the new research would seem to challenge that point of view.

“It’s surprising just how often common assumptions – by both scientists and the media – are wrong,” said Howard S. Friedman, the professor of psychology who led the 20-year study. He was quoted in a university summary.

Friedman and an associate examined, refined and supplemented data gathered by the late Stanford University psychologist Louis Terman and subsequent researchers on more than 1,500 bright children who were about 10 years old when they were first studied in 1921. “Probably our most amazing finding was that personality characteristics and social relations from childhood can predict one’s risk of dying decades later,” Friedman concluded.

The Longevity Project, as the study became known, followed the children through their lives, collecting information that included family histories and relationships, teacher and parent ratings of personality, hobbies, pet ownership, job success, education levels, military service and numerous other details, the university reported.

“When we started, we were frustrated with the state of research about individual differences, stress, health and longevity,” Friedman recalled. “It was clear that some people were more prone to disease, took longer to recover, or died sooner, while others of the same age were able to thrive. All sorts of explanations were being proposed – anxiety, lack of exercise, nerve-racking careers, risk-taking, lack of religion, unsociability, disintegrating social groups, pessimism, poor access to medical care, and Type A behavior patterns.” But none were well-studied over the long term. That is, none followed people step-by-step throughout their lives.

Part of the explanation lies in health behaviors – the cheerful, happy-go-lucky kids tended to take more risks with their health across the years, Friedman noted. While an optimistic approach can be helpful in a crisis, “we found that as a general life-orientation, too much of a sense that ‘everything will be just fine’ can be dangerous because it can lead one to be careless about things that are important to health and long life. Prudence and persistence, however, led to a lot of important benefits for many years. It turns out that happiness is not a root cause of good health. Instead, happiness and health go together because they have common roots.”

Many of the research findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom, according to a university summary. For example:

• Marriage may be good for men’s health, but doesn’t really matter for women. Steadily married men – those who remained in long-term marriages – were likely to live to age 70 and beyond; fewer than one-third of divorced men were likely to live to 70; and men who never married outlived those who remarried and significantly outlived those who divorced – but they did not live as long as married men.

• Being divorced is much less harmful to women’s health. Women who divorced and did not remarry lived nearly as long as those who were steadily married.

• “Don’t work too hard, don’t stress,” doesn’t work as advice for good health and long life. Subjects who were the most involved and committed to their jobs did the best. Continually productive men and women lived much longer than their more laid-back comrades

• Starting formal schooling too early – being in first grade before age 6 – is a risk factor for earlier mortality. Having sufficient playtime and being able to relate to classmates is very important for children.

• Playing with pets is not associated with longer life. Pets may sometimes improve well-being, but they are not a substitute for friends.

• Combat veterans are less likely to live long lives, but surprisingly the psychological stress of war itself is not necessarily a major health threat. Rather, it is a cascade of unhealthy patterns that sometimes follows. Those who find meaning in a traumatic experience and are able to reestablish a sense of security about the world are usually the ones who return to a healthy pathway.

• People who feel loved and cared for report a better sense of well-being, but it doesn’t help them live longer. The clearest health benefit of social relationships comes from being involved with and helping others. The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become – healthy or unhealthy.

Buettner’s book, “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest,” has spawned a cottage industry of those who seek to tell other how to live longer.

The Blue Zone theory merges seamlessly with the Happy Planet Index that purports to show Costa Rica as the happiest country.

“A progressive British think tank has pulled off the public relations coup of the month with a press release promoting its happy planet index,” said A.M. Costa Rica when the index came out, adding: “Costa Ricans, based on three variables and a couple of fudge factors, have been crowned the world’s happiest people.”

The part of the study that did not receive wide distribution said “The Index doesn’t reveal the ‘happiest’ country in the world. It shows the relative efficiency with which nations convert the planet’s natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens. The nations that top the Index aren’t the happiest places in the world, but the nations that score well show that achieving, long, happy lives without over-stretching the planet’s resources is possible.”

That is why A.M. Costa Rica headlined the news article “Sadly, the happy planet report is mostly ideology.’

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