Who REALLY knows how to stay healthy and live long?

You may have seen my wonderful colleague and co-author Dr. Leslie Martin on the Today Show (NBC) this week, being interviewed by Matt Lauer along with the director of the well-received new documentary How To Live Forever. Leslie was there as a health scientist with filmmaker Mark Wexler to provide research-based insight into the real reasons why some people stay healthy and live long. Mr. Wexler’s stimulating film interviews a cast of healthy old people. What do we health psychologists think about this approach?

Two pioneers I admire appear in the film, Phyllis Diller and Jack LaLanne. Phyllis Diller, the self-ridiculing comedian with the loud laugh (who turns 94 this month), helped pave the way for women in stand-up. (Phyllis, running after the garbage truck with her trash: “Am I too late?” The driver: “No, jump right in.”) Jack LaLanne who lived in good health until he died this year at age 96, was likewise always willing to defy the conventional wisdom. Starting as a teenager, Jack set out to keep himself healthy, becoming a nutrition nut, a performer (with the first TV fitness show), and a body-builder. He founded one of the first work-out gyms, back in the 1930s! Later in life, Jack was famous for selling a juicer, so that everyone could drink lots of vegetable juice.

Did Phyllis really laugh her way to good health? Sure George Burns and Bob Hope lived to 100 but what about the dozens of superb comedians who died young? John Belushi (died at age 33), Gildna Radner (42), Andy Kaufman (34), Lou Costello (52), Lenny Bruce (40), John Ritter (54), Chris Farley (33), Curly Howard (48), John Candy (43), and many more. What did Phyllis really do that made a difference?

Analogously, what was really Jack LaLanne’s secret? He did many health-nut things, but which really mattered? Of course there is now good evidence that staying in shape with strong muscles is generally a healthy obsession, despite the many doctors who at the time warned against risks of becoming muscle-bound, impotent, and worse. Jack’s juicer? Maybe, but there is really no good evidence that vegetable juice is the secret to longevity. Could we really emulate LaLanne? In his 40s, he swam the Golden Gate channel while towing a one-ton boat. At around age 60, he swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman’s Wharf, handcuffed and shackled. I don’t know about you, but if I managed to spend every minute of my life lifting weights in Jack’s gym and drinking his vegetable juice, I could never accomplish any of his amazing feats. In other words, Jack differed from the typical person in lots and lots of ways. Even Jack did not know precisely what was his key to good health.

The good news is that there is an excellent way to uncover some of the secrets to good health: follow a large number of promising, healthy children for their whole lives, and see who stays healthy and lives long, and who succumbs. This is exactly what Leslie and I have been doing for the past 20 years. Our findings (reported in The Longevity Project) reveal many, many other things that Jack LaLanne and Phyllis Diller did that bode well for good health. For example, after an early divorce, LaLanne married Elaine Doyle in 1959 and stayed happily married to her ‘till death did they part. That is over 50 years! In The Longevity Project (which started in 1921), we discovered that long, supportive marriages, in which the man is happy, are indeed especially good for a man’s health. This was not necessarily true for women, and not surprisingly, Phyllis has survived the death of at least three husbands/partners.

Our 8-decade research study also discovered that having a successful career, striving for a worthwhile cause, and being in daily contact with lots of people in life are very good predictors of staying healthy and living long. Phyllis and Jack did all of these, to the max.

On the Today Show, Leslie made it clear to Matt that you cannot validly understand much about the causes of health and long life by talking only to people who succeeded in reaching their 90s. They don’t really know the secret. And they usually don’t remember what they were doing 50 or 60 years prior. So why do we keep turning to old people and asking them about the secrets to health and longevity? Well it makes for a provocative, entertaining film, but it is merely an insightful story, not science. In long-term research like we report in the Longevity Project, we can see more clearly how one set of healthy steps brings on other healthy strides, until one is on a healthy path. This deeper, long-term approach is more difficult to master, but it is the road most taken by individuals destined to stay healthy and wind up in a film about how to live forever.

Note: If you are interested, there are self-quizzes and scales in our book to see if you are on a healthy life trajectory. See: The Longevity Project Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study. NY: Hudson Street The photo was taken on February 25, 2007 by Brian Hamilton, at the home of Phyllis Diller in Brentwood, California, Wkimedia Commons.