Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study

by Howard S. Friedman, PhD
and Leslie R. Martin, PhD
New York, Hudson Street Press, 2011
248 pages       Non-Fiction

I am approaching the 50th anniversary of my high school graduation. OMG, how did I get to be this old? Although I probably won’t go to my reunion, I look forward to getting the booklet that will come with all the information about my remaining classmates. I went to a middle class high school in a middle class city. My classmates were mostly just like me; educated parents in professional careers. Over the years, we have received notices about classmates who have died, first in the Viet Nam War, a couple by suicide, one in a mountain climbing accident, and one who died in childbirth. Now the death notices we are receiving are about heart attacks and cancer. How many of those 320 that I graduated with are still alive? What are they doing? How is the quality of their lives?

So it was with anticipation that I began reading the book The Longevity Project by Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin. I had been reading about this project and this book, and although I would probably not have picked it up without the prompting of the publisher, I had already had some exposure to the concept.

Longitudinal studies very seldom have the chance to extend much beyond their funding. This was not the case with the study begun in 1921 by the Stanford University Psychologist Lewis Terman. Terman began studying a group of 1500 bright school children in San Francisco when they were in elementary school. He asked teachers to recommend their brightest students, and over the years, he met with them many times documenting their arrival at adulthood, their careers, their marriages, their successes and failures. He was “interested in the sources of intellectual leadership and wondered if he could identify early glimmers of high potential.”

He continued visiting this same group of children until they were approaching middle age and until his death in the 1950s. Because of the meticulous nature of his study, his results have been tapped again and again by researchers. Friedman, Martin and their graduate students began their study of longevity in 1990, and utilized the people studied by Terman, including those they were able to interview (in their early 90s) and those they were only able to study in their death certificates and the comments made about them by Terman and his colleagues as they were growing up.

The Wall Street Journal reviewer summarizes the results thus: “The respondents to the study who fared best in the longevity sweepstakes tended to have a fairly high level of physical activity, a habit of giving back to the community, a thriving and long-running career, and a healthy marriage and family life. They summoned resilience against reverses and challenges—including divorce, loss of a spouse, career upsets and war trauma. By contrast, those with the darkest dispositions—catastrophizers, who viewed every stumble as a calamity—were most likely to die sooner.”

The book is designed in such a way that the reader can superimpose her own reality on the narrative. It is not a book of statistics, thank God. Nor is it a book that lets you calculate your exact length of life, because it doesn’t attempt to take into account diseases, natural disaster, accidents, or fate. It is more about personality traits that affect lifespan. There are some quizzes that help guide you into decisions about how you fit in the vast scheme of things—how purposeful or sociable you are—as examples.

Here are the things that I was particularly interested in learning from The Longevity Project:

• Children who lose a parent do not necessarily live a shorter life, but girls are particularly affected if they lose a father before they are 20.
• Children of divorce don’t live as long as children whose parents stay together.
• If men are happy with their marriage they will live longer, but a happy marriage does not affect the lifespan of a woman.
• Working hard at your career (some would say overworking) doesn’t affect your lifespan.
• Activity is important, but it can be activity like gardening, or sailing, or walking, and doesn’t have to be training for marathons.
• Conscientiousness is the best predictor of a long life (which probably means that my sister will live forever).

Well, I could go on and on. This is a fascinating study and readers will get clues about their own lives, and the lives of their spouses and children. I learned that when I take a walk every day, do yoga every week, cook healthy meals, love my husband, connect with my friends, keep working, make quilts, and keep my mind active by reading and blogging, I am doing the best I can to live as long as I am able—“God willing and the creek don’t rise!”

Here is the Wall Street Journal review:

The Longevity Project’s Facebook page:

An interview with Friedman in The Atlantic:

1 comment:

Howard Friedman said...

For more information about The Longevity Project and to read the Introduction (free), go to The Longevity Project

There is also a Facebook page with lots of discussion about The Longevity Project.