stress-reliefHoward S. Friedman says that eating vegetables and going to the gym are not as important to our long-term health as having a rich, productive life.

By Amy Novotney December 2011, Vol 42, No. 11

Most people who live to old age do so not because they have beaten cancer, heart disease, depression or diabetes. Instead, the long-lived avoid serious ailments altogether through a series of steps that often rely on long-lasting, meaningful connections with others, says University of California, Riverside, psychologist Howard S. Friedman, PhD, co-author with Leslie Martin, PhD, of the 2011 book “The Longevity Project.” The book is a compilation of findings from their work on an eight-decade research project of the same name examining the longevity of more than 1,500 children first studied by psychologist Lewis Terman, PhD, in 1921. It’s an attempt to answer the question of who lives longest — and why — based on personality traits, relationships, experiences and career paths.

The Monitor spoke to Friedman about some of the most controversial of his findings — including the idea that stress isn’t necessarily all that bad for us.

Why is it so important for psychologists to be involved in longevity work?

It’s been known for a long time that the traditional biomedical model of disease — that you’re healthy until you get sick — is seriously flawed. Hence the “wellness” movements. Psychologists are probably best positioned to fix this outdated biomedical approach. We are discovering the many ways in which physical well-being and subjective well-being are two sides of the same coin. It’s time to bury the flawed distinctions between mental and physical health. This is why I see The Longevity Project as a potential paradigm changer, not a “how-to” manual.

What drew you to Terman’s study?

In 1989, I was frustrated with the state of research about individual differences, stress, health and longevity. 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, but there was no good way to test explanations over the long term. I didn’t much care if stressed students caught the flu at exam time — I wanted to know who was more likely to later develop cancer or heart disease and die before their time. But how to do such a study? Most troublingly, I’d be long dead before the results came in.

Then one day it struck me: Build upon the Terman data, extending a study that began in 1921. We planned to spend a year, but more than two decades later, I am still at it. Turns out that a tremendous amount of new information needed to be collected and refined, and the statistical analyses are mind-bogglingly complex. But I love discovering important things about health and longevity that no one ever imagined would be key. And fortunately, persistence turns out to be one of the best predictors of health and long life.

Terman’s research focused mainly on white children from middle-class families. What effect do you think this has on extrapolation of the findings to other groups?

The Terman sample is the only lifelong, continuously detailed, large-scale study of initially healthy boys and girls. Because they had access to and understanding of medical care and education, but have a great range of personalities and social relations, it was a terrific sample for studying individual differences. Other studies document the health relevance of socioeconomic status, ethnicity and general intelligence, but The Longevity Project yields deep biopsychosocial insight into those macro-level associations. It’s thrilling that our key findings are now indeed being confirmed by other researchers.

What is the most surprising finding from your research?

We were amazed to uncover lots of evidence overall that it is not random who will become ill. Rather, there are large differences in susceptibility to injury and disease. Some of these are a function of personality. Others are tied to social relations, including marriage, family, friendship and religious observance. Most eye-opening is our finding that the risk factors and protective shields do not occur in isolation, but bunch together in patterns. For example, the unconscientious boys — even though very bright — were more likely to grow up to have poor marriages, to smoke and drink more, achieve less education, and be relatively unsuccessful at work. And they died at younger ages. Such health risks and relationship challenges, such as divorce, are usually studied independently, which I think is a big mistake. Conversely, certain personality constellations predicted more achievement, better social relationships, and other elements of thriving that led to longer, healthier lives.

Explain the effects of stress on longevity. Your research seems to show it may not be as bad for us as we think.

There is a terrible misunderstanding about stress. Chronic physiological disturbance is not at all the same thing as hard work, social challenges or demanding careers. People are being given rotten advice to slow down, take it easy, stop worrying and retire to Florida. The Longevity Project discovered that those who worked the hardest lived the longest. The responsible and successful achievers thrived in every way, especially if they were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves.

One study participant, Norris Bradbury, is a great example. He was the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory for decades and was tremendously hard-working. It is hard to imagine a higher-pressure job than overseeing the development of the nation’s nuclear arsenal at a time of severe Cold War threats. Yet, he was tremendously successful in his long career, and, despite all the stresses and challenges, Bradbury lived a very long, healthy life — to age 88. This was the general pattern. Those who stayed very involved in meaningful careers and worked the hardest, lived the longest.

Your research also shows that the single strongest social predictor of early death in adulthood is parental divorce during childhood. Why?

The beauty of The Longevity Project is that we don’t have to speculate about explanations; we can go back into the lifelong data and see. This tracing of pathways also explains why we are not drawing causal conclusions from correlational data, as some people initially think. It turns out that parental divorce often pushes the child into a number of unhealthy directions, including heavier drinking and smoking, less education, lower career achievements and eventual higher likelihood of divorce themselves. The good news here is that we also discovered pathways to a resilient recovery, such as achieving a sense of personal accomplishment. Strength of character and maturity were important, consistent with other research.

What effect does marriage have on health and long life?

The big surprise here involved differences between men and women. Magazines are full of advice to “Get married and you will live longer,” but it is not true. Marriage was health-promoting primarily for men who were well-suited to marriage and had a good marriage. For the rest, there were all kinds of complications. Women who got divorced or stayed single often thrived. Even women who were widowed often did exceptionally well. It seemed as if women who got rid of their troublesome husbands stayed healthy. Men who got and stayed divorced were at really high risk for premature mortality.

In the book, you break down the research into what you term “Guideposts for Health and Long Life” to help readers understand what your findings mean for them. What are some of your favorite guideposts?

The book has a number of self-assessments so you can better understand your own health-relevant trajectories. Good things early on bring more so-called “good luck” later, but it is not luck, and many participants did alter their trajectories. I think simple checklists are worse than useless. We all know lots of things that are health-promoting — stop substance abuse, stay active, eat right, sleep well, don’t gain weight, make friends — so why aren’t most people healthy?

Instead, I advise, “Throw away your lists” because our studies suggest that it is a society with more conscientious and goal-oriented citizens, well-integrated into their communities, that is likely to be important to health and long life. These changes involve slow, step-by-step alterations that unfold across many years. But so does health. For example, connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over a rigorous exercise program.

Which guideposts do you focus on most in your own life?

As a baby boomer, I naturally think ahead to what I should be doing in the next phase of life. Fortunately, careful consideration is a key part of one of the healthy paths we call “The High Road.” Such an individual is the conscientious sort, with good friends, meaningful work and a happy, responsible marriage. The thoughtful planning and perseverance that such people invest in their careers and their relationships promote long life naturally and automatically, even when challenges arise. Ironically, such prudent, persistent achievers with stable families and social networks are usually the ones most concerned with what they should be doing to stay healthy. But they are already doing it.