Surprising Discoveries ForHealth & Long Life From the Landmark Eight-Decade Study
Harold S. Friedman, Ph.D. & Leslie R. Martin, Ph.D.
,,Hudson Street Press, Penguin Group, New York 2011
A Review by C. Norman Shealy, M.D., Ph.D.
In 1921, Dr. Lewis Terman asked teachers to pick their “brightest” kids. Just over 1500 of these boys and girls were born around 1910. There has been at least an 80 year study of these individuals with several groups of research scientists continuing the work after Dr. Terman died. These are just a few of the conclusions of the authors:
“—Eating slowing doesn’t matter.”
“—Lying about your age and your health does not represent a challenge to health researchers.”
They include a number of myths including:
“—Thinking happy thoughts reduces stress and leads to a longer life.”
In general, people who live to old age do so because they have long outlived the most serious illnesses and, indeed, people who are healthy tend to be happy and those who are happy, tend to be healthier. Incidentally, they found the hardest city in the country in which to obtain accurate birth certificates was New York.
One of their typical questions is: “I am now persistent in the accomplishment of my work” and ends with a scale of 1 to 5. Persistence and prudence seem to be two of the great qualities of all consciousness. “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.” Thrift, persistence, detail oriented individuals and responsible living are major qualities of the conscientious. By 2000, 70% of determined women and 51% of determined men had died. They were all born about 90 years earlier. Conscientious people do more things to protect their health and they engage in fewer risky activities. They are less likely to smoke, less likely to drink excessively, less likely to do drugs and less likely to drive too fast. They are more likely to wear seatbelts.
They also believe that:
“—People are biologically predisposed to be both more conscientious and healthier.” They emphasize that individuals with low levels of serotonin are more impulsive and also that serotonin is necessary “to regulate many health relevant processes throughout the body, including how much you eat and how well you sleep.”
Conscientious people also tend to seek healthier situations and relationships. They have happier marriages, better friendships and healthier work situations.
Less conscientious people are likely to:
“—Be clinically depressed, feel anxious, smoke cigarettes, and have high blood pressure and sciatica, — and also to have tuberculosis, diabetes, joint problems and strokes.”? They still can lead exciting and very rewarding lives. They emphasize that conscientious people make adjustments but they make them with smaller but more progressive steps, instead of rapid sudden change.
Being sociable alone does not necessarily increase longevity. They emphasize that scientists and engineers are the opposite pole from businessmen and lawyers in “abilities, occupational interests, and social behaviors.” In general, scientists outlive non-scientists.
“—Two thirds of nonscientists, but almost three quarters of scientists, live to reach age 70.” Scientists, on the other hand, are less sociable than those who become lawyers, business people and sales people. In the two groups overall, they are about equal in conscientiousness but the scientists tend to have more stable jobs and long lasting marriages and work responsibly. The nonscientists tend to have more tumultuous, less stable and more health damaging careers and behaviors. So sociability alone “was a wash.” Individuals, who as children were more sociable and more extroverted, tended to drink more and smoke more. Interestingly in my experience with more than 30,000 depressed people, a majority of whom are introverts, I have found that at least in those who become invalids, introverts are far more likely to smoke than extroverts.
The authors state that:
“—Length of life is the single best measure of health.”
They also found that:
“—Cheerful and optimistic children were less likely to live to an old age than their more staid and sober counterparts!” Cheerful children engage in riskier hobbies and have a less conscious attention to health.
They authors emphasize repeatedly that adapting health habits such as watching less TV, improving social relations, increased activity, helping others, etc., is not as important as having them come naturally. The authors consider happiness to be a “by-product of their pathways to long life.”
Interestingly, however, it is important to emphasize that those individuals who tend to catastrophize die sooner, especially men. Catastrophizers are more likely to die from accidents or violence. Interestingly, in interviews of older men, those over the age of 70, the individuals never “spoke the word death in reference to his own inevitable demise.” Conscientious people are far less likely to be catastrophized. One of the most interesting studies was of individuals who were given Propranolol vs. a placebo. Conscientious people who took the drug were much more likely to survive whether they got the placebo or the drug. In other words, the conscientiousness of taking it was more important than taking the drug itself!
The authors have repeatedly mentioned the fact that the patterns of behavior in early childhood are far more important than any other single indicator of health. Interestingly they determined that although breast feeding may have other benefits, it does not seem to be related to personality. They found, however, that a greater number of those participants in the study who started school at a very early age encountered difficulty throughout life, as well as led to shorter lives. Children who started first grade at age 5 were at a much higher risk of dying early than those who started at age 6. As one might expect, individuals who have a greater amount of education are healthier and live longer. The level of education by itself was, however, not a good predictor of health or longevity.
Interestingly, more than a third of the Terman group faced either death of a parent or divorce of their parents. Death itself did not seem to impact life span but, “The long term health effects of parental divorce were often devastating – It was indeed a risky circumstance that changed the pathways of many of the young Terman participants.” In general, “Children from divorced families died almost 5 years earlier than children from intact families.” Actually, parental divorce during childhood was the – “single strongest social predictor of early death, many years into the future.” On the other hand, early childhood personality and the effects of parents’ divorce did not seem related. There were independent factors related to health. Men were more likely than women to die early of accidents or of violence if their parents had divorced. In other words, they became more reckless. Among other things, both boys and girls in divorced families have less long term education. Children of divorce were more likely to engage in both drinking and smoking, especially smoking. Women from divorced families were more than twice as likely to be heavy smokers. Children of divorced parents also have a greater increased risk of cancer. Children of divorced parents are much more likely to get divorced.
It is interesting that they found that – “being active in middle age was more important to health and longevity” than necessarily being active in childhood and that being inactive in childhood was not a problem if the individuals became more active as they aged. On the other hand, those who were active as children were more likely to remain active but if they became inactive in adulthood, then the protection of physical activity essentially vanished. It really emphasized that moderate exercise was significantly more important than marathoning, etc. Unfortunately, they say “advice to spend 30 minutes, at least 4 times per week, by expending energy at the rate of 6-8 MET’s is good, up to date medical advice, but poor practical advice.” Of course we need not worry as there are very few Jack Lalanne’s.
This study emphasized what has been known for a long time; married men live longer but married women do not necessarily live longer. Divorced men have a much higher mortality risk. Less than one third of divorced men reach age 70! Men remarried after divorce did live longer than divorced men but no where near as long as steadily married men and single men who never married outlived divorced and even remarried men and very significantly outlived divorced men. However, they do not live as long as steadily married men. On the other hand, women who divorce their husbands and stay single live almost as long as steadily married women. Divorce is much less harmful to women’s health than to men. Those who grew up with parents who remained married also were less likely to become divorced. Interestingly, “Those folks who later became consistently married individuals had been more conscientious as children.” In other words, prudence and responsibility as a child will much more likely lead to a successful marriage, as well as a longer life. Of course one of the great influences on people who remain married is that both partners have many similar interests. In general, if the husband is happy, the woman is likely to be happy as well and it is the husband’s happiness in a marriage that determines his health and longevity. But if the husband is unhappy in young to middle age, then the woman is more likely to be unhealthy and unhappy as she ages.
“—A happy husband is good for the health and well being of both the husband and the wife.”
“—Women who had a higher frequency of achieving orgasm during intercourse tended to live longer than their less fulfilled peers.”
“— A sexually satisfying and happy marriage is a very good indicator of future health and long life.”
Interestingly, of the men in the Terman study, about 20% were considered highly successful and 20% unsuccessful, with 60% being similarly in-between. Of importance is that those who had the greatest success in their careers were less likely to die young. In other words, the most successful men live 5 years longer than the least successful.
“—Ambition, coupled with perseverance, impulse control, and high motivation, was not only good for achievement but was part of the package of a resilient work life and a longer life.” Both work and family were the most important aspects for health and longevity. Men who work in more stressful jobs, as one might expect, die younger – but not necessarily if they are happy in those stressful jobs.
“—Productive orientation meant more than their social relationships or the sense of happiness and well being.” As in everything else, prudence, dependability and perseverance seem to be the key.
The authors take a long look at religion and came to the conclusion, “Religiosity did not matter much for the men.” But interestingly, it did matter for the women. On the other hand, they found that it was not religion itself but other personality characteristics that were more important. And the real importance of it is that the religiously inclined tend to be more active in social networking. For the men, families and careers were far more important than religion. The men often “relied more on their wives and social realms.” It is the “social engagement” that is most important. In other words, the most important effects are “—frequency of visiting and communicating with relatives, friends and neighbors; doing community service; satisfaction with friendships and social contacts; number of intimate and companionate relationships; quality relationships with family and close relatives; and frequency of meetings with social or community groups” which are perhaps the most important of all. “Although other studies have shown that people who feel loved and cared for will report a better sense of well-being – they feel better – we did not find that it helped much for living a long life.” But having a large social network matters tremendously. Over and over they emphasize that it was “helping others” and that advising and caring for others seemed to be among the most important factors for men and women.
“—Playing with pets wasn’t associated with a longer life.”
“—Modern medical cures have played a relatively minor part in increasing adult life span, something that most people do not understand.”Interestingly, the average life expectancy of a 60 year old white male in this country has only increased 4 or 5 years during the last 50 years.
“—It is a great misconception (with serious implications) in our society that modern medicine has led to huge increases in the longevity of American adults.” Both quality and length of life are associated with taking the time to cultivate social networks. In fact, “social relations should be the first place to look for improving health and longevity.”
The authors have a rather elaborate discussion of personality traits of femininity and masculinity. In general, I suppose most of us would have no difficulty in understanding the traits that they put into each of these categories but they found that both more masculine men and more masculine women had increased mortality risks. In fact, the authors believe that one of the significant reasons that women outlive men is that women are more feminine – even than feminine men. More feminine women and men are less likely to die from all causes. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that boys who were moody in childhood were much more likely to die early. Widowed women tend to thrive and live longer than still married women. “Many widowed women went on to live exceptionally long lives.” “When men who had lost their wives were also highly neurotic, the subsequent mortality risk was reduced by half.”
Of course, as one might expect, depression, hostility and aggressiveness all carry risks of a wide variety of illnesses, as well as shortened life expectancy.
“—Individual health depends on social health.”
“—Resilience was not a trait they were born with, nor an inner insight, but a process of perseverance and hard work.”
Long life is associated with – “an active pursuit of goals, a deep satisfaction of life, and a strong sense of accomplishment.”
“—Predicting your own health and longevity from that of your parents is mediocre at best.”
It appears that the most important thing we can do to help people is to help them develop social patterns and social inner activity.

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