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Psychological Predictors of Long Life

An 80-year study discovers traits that help people to live longer.

Senior Citizens Quilting

One problem is that the scientists doing the study are adults, so they will die long before the children. Another is that 80 years is a long time to wait for an answer. Usually, professors are under publish-or-perish pressure; but this is a case of publish after you perish.

Believe it or not, such a study has actually been done. In 1921 Lewis Terman, developer of the Stanford-Binet IQ test, began the research on more than 1,500 bright ten-year-old Californians. Generations of researchers have been working on the project over the years and will continue to do so until the last “termite” — as the participants were nicknamed — has died.

Two of the psychologists currently involved in the research, Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin have written a book summarizing their findings, The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study. (The book includes self-rating scales for readers on many of the relevant variables.) As with all research, some expected relationships turned out to be true, some were found to be false, and some unexpected relationships emerged that are contrary to popular wisdom.

Here is a sample:

---The strongest predictor of long life was conscientiousness. Conscientious people are less likely to smoke, engage in risky behavior, and have accidents; and they are more likely to have good health practices and follow medical advice.

---Being sociable, extroverted, and happy doesn’t predict long life; but being a mildly neurotic worrier does, for reasons similar to those for conscientiousness. On the other hand, as expected, social ties—having contact with friends and loved ones—is a plus, if only because they can call for help when you need it.

---Taking it easy and avoiding stress doesn’t make you live longer, but being engaged with meaningful work does.

---Divorce shortened the lives of men much more than women. Similarly being single was a greater disadvantage for men than for women.

---Surprisingly, for these bright people, starting school early predicted a shorter life. Apparently boredom because school is too easy was not a longevity disadvantage—especially in comparison to the advantage offered by the normal social development of growing up with age peers.

Lewis Terman was a man of his less-than-enlightened time. He believed in eugenics, and his research project was called “Genetic Studies of Genius.” He naively assumed that his high IQ kids (nearly all white) would become the future leaders of science, industry, and politics. His inclusion of girls was an important exception to the biases of the era, since women had only just gotten the right to vote, and had few career options.

However, Terman was above all a scientist; and he was dedicated to collecting meaningful data, and to accepting what the data showed even when it contradicted his beliefs. Thus, he acknowledged the finding that many of the “genius” children wound up in menial jobs; and it appears that the participants as a whole did no better than others from similar social class backgrounds. In other words, there is a lot more to making it—including hard work, luck, social contacts, good health, and social skills—than being academically gifted.

Most important are the data he left behind. Ingenious researchers across the generations have found ways to continue to get valuable information from the surviving participants, and to compare them to Terman’s data and those from other research. As a result, a century after the children in the study were born, we can all benefit from what they helped us to learn.

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Senior Citizens Quilting

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