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Want to Live Longer? Stop Worrying

Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News
April 10, 2009
 
If you want to live to a hundred, you'd better lighten up.

Children of centenarians—who usually inherit both longevity and personality traits from their parents—are on average more outgoing, agreeable, and less neurotic, according to a new study.

That's because being affable and more social confers health benefits, according to lead study author Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University Medical Center.

It may be that less neurotic people are better able to manage or regulate stressful situations than the highly neurotic, Perls said.

"We've seen centenarians go through huge amounts of stress, and time and time again they've shown us how … it doesn't get to them."

Likable People

The Boston University team gave 246 unrelated children of centenarians a questionnaire that measures neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

Rather than directly testing the elderly, the team looked at both male and female offspring who had an average age of 75.

"They're at the stage of their lives when they're cooking along at 110 percent," Perls said. "There's a number of things we can study in them that we can't" in centenarians.

Both males and females scored in the low range for being neurotic and the high range for being extroverted.

(Try out Perls and colleagues' life expectancy calculator.)

Women scored high in agreeableness, while men scored normal. Both sexes tested normal for conscientiousness and openness, according to the study, published in the April issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Explorer and author Dan Buettner, who has studied the world's centenarian hot spots—which he calls blue zones—has observed that centenarians tend to have sunny dispositions.

Buettner has not studied the children of centenarians, though that methodology is "absolutely" valid, he said.

(Buettner has also received funding from the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)

In the blue zone of Okinawa, Japan, Buettner asked expert Nobuyoshi Hirose what he thought explains Okinawans' longevity.

"He thought for a moment, and said, They're likable people," Buettner said.

That likeability translates to a robust social circle, one of the common threads among the long-lived, Buettner added.

(Related: "Long-Lived Costa Ricans Offer Secrets to Reaching 100.")

Improvements

Though many aspects of our personalities are already set by our genes, Buettner said, we can all make lifestyle improvements to help us live longer.

For one, becoming more extroverted—and by extension widening our social networks—can be cultivated and trained, Buettner said.

Also high on his list is eating a plant-based diet—"the more meat you eat, the quicker you die," he said.

And having a clear sense of purpose in your life, he added, is worth seven years of life expectancy.

Study leader Perls added that numerous strategies exist to deal with stress, such as exercising, meditation, or just taking a "nice deep breath."

"It's a matter of setting aside the time and effort to effectively manage your stress well," he said. "One of the keys is to realize how important it is to do that."
 

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