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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.

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

"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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