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Worry Your Way to Longevity

By Philip D.

June 9, 2012

There may be hope for me yet. According to a book I read recently, those who worry in moderation appear to outlive their overly cheerful counterparts. If that's really true, I may be around to blog for a very long time.

It's called The Longevity Project. Written by two Ph.D.s -- Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin -- they compiled an eight-decade study of American lifestyle and its consequences. It all started in 1921 when Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman enrolled 1,500 eight year olds, with the primary goal to follow each of them throughout their lives. Cradle to grave in the U.S., so to speak. He interviewed their parents, teachers and those who knew them best. Not just to see if they ate their vegetables or exercised regularly but to uncover their core personalities and behaviors. Was the participant intellectual, moral, emotional, aesthetic or anti-social? Were they optimistic, religious, moody or conscientious? Did they come from divorced parents, marry or remain single, join the Army or become rich and famous?

Even after Terman's death in 1956, the study was carried on by his students, following its participants (affectionately known as "Termites") until the end of their lives. In 1990, Friedman and Martin, using the foundation of Terman's work and detailed data collected on each participant (well into adulthood and including death certificates) began to piece together the effects of personality, behaviors and a long life.

The book is a quick and easy read with several tests included, to help you discover where you might fall in the longevity continuum. Here's a few points that I found interesting. Don't forget I am a pessimist in recovery.

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  • You want to live forever? Being conscientious may help get you there. Why? "Simply, they consistently do more things to protect their health and engage in less risky activities. Plus, they tend to cooperate with their medical treatments and are considered 'good adherers.'" They mention nothing about "conscientious HIV-ers," but do you hear what I hear?
  • Where they do mention HIV is the section about optimism. "The positive impact of optimism on health is that it encourages health-promoting behaviors. For someone facing a chronic condition like HIV, it might mean taking pills on time, cutting out alcohol or seeing the best doctors one can possibly find. The significant health downside to optimism involves overlooking or ignoring real threats -- sometimes called illusory optimism. Optimists often underestimate risks to their health and thereby fail to take precautions or follow medical advice. Or, they may be especially shocked when things do turn out badly."
  • Do you believe that thinking happy thoughts leads to a long life? Think again. "Terman's children who were classified as overly cheerful were not only more likely to have died young but they were relatively less likely than the average person to die from cancer or heart disease and were instead more likely to die from suicide, accident or homicide." Why? "Possibly, because cheerful children were the ones who often grew up to engage in riskier hobbies and many of them had a happy-go-lucky disregard for their health and safety."
  • Who else is in trouble? Catastrophizers. They tended to die sooner. They hypothesize it's because they generally have superficial relationships with other people and frequently cannot face their problems. "Catastrophizers believe that having one significant problem is a sign that more bad things will surely follow and may put themselves onto riskier paths, especially in terms of the likelihood of a violent, early death." Yikes!

On a lighter note, their behavior recommendations for maintaining health?

  • Watch less TV.
  • Cultivate social relations.
  • Increase levels of physical activity -- go for a long walk.
  • Help others and express gratitude to those who have helped you.
  • Take on new challenges to remain fresh and in the moment.

"These activities are part of long-term patterns that characterize healthy and happy individuals. The healthy patterns and pathways come first, and they lead to both health and happiness."

Who else might stay in the game longer? Men and women with more feminine behaviors live longer than men and women with more masculine behaviors. People that have active social lives outlive the hermits and recluses. Men do worse if they divorce and don't remarry; the women do better. Religious folks tend to stay around longer but not because of the stress relief of prayer and meditation but because it often goes hand in hand with a deep-seated sense of community. If you spend two years of your life running on a treadmill to lengthen your life, you probably will live about two years longer; but very possibly in a hospital or nursing home. Translation: run on a treadmill only if you love running on a treadmill.

Yeah, yeah, yeah ... but what about us worriers? According to Friedman and Martin, worrying may be bad for your health -- if you're female. "Terman's female children worriers were usually sicker and died earlier but for the men the results were dramatically different. Although they went on to report being sicker and unhappier as they aged, they were less likely to die. If the neurotic individuals were also conscientious, things got even better." It seems when it comes to neurotic worrying, it depends greatly on the degree in which it occurs. "Chicken Littles" who are constantly expecting doom and disaster may not make it to old age but "moderate worriers" tend to be engaged in their lives and the body responds positively.

So what did I take away from all of this? It's all the things I consistently do, day by day, that make up my lifestyle. Personality and emotional disposition have a powerful influence on the behaviors and activities that I fill my days with. When and how will all of this end? I have no idea -- but I'm gonna try not to worry about it ... much.

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See Also
More on Life Expectancy and HIV/AIDS

Reader Comments:

Comment by: CSCOTT (TUCSON, AZ) Fri., Jun. 22, 2012 at 3:33 am EDT
A very nice little read, possibly the best I've read in years. It is rare that the delivery of test results are this eloquent.
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A Positive Spin


Philip D.

Philip D.

After testing HIV positive in 2007, I promised myself that I would make something "good" from all that I was handed. From the very beginning, each time I was presented with an obstacle or challenge, I also received some help. Usually in the form of a person, sometimes an opportunity; but I have grown so much, it has made it impossible for me to call the past few years "bad." Although I've never written much of anything before, I have been so incredibly fortunate, I feel like I must pay it forward somehow. Maybe by sharing my experience, it will help those starting later in the game, on the fast track to HAART, or anyone that's feeling a bit isolated or "stuck" with their diagnosis.


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