Diet and exercise are overrated for life expectancy, researchers say. Especially conscientious and determined people reach a Methuselah age.
People – at least in affluent societies – are living longer than ever before. 80 or even 90 year old seniors with considerable fitness are no longer exceptions. Still, there are also many who don’t make it there. Which raises the question of why the life expectancy of different people varies so much.
Is it because of genes, diet, physical exercise, social relationships or just financially? The U.S. researchers Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin have pursued this question and present the results on Monday in a book: "The Long-Life Formula" (Beltz-Verlag). According to this, besides a favorable social environment, it is mainly personal factors that make us reach a Methuselah age. Such as discipline and determination – and a certain tendency to boredom.
Three generations of researchers
Friedman and Martin work at the University of California, but their study is actually designed to span several generations of researchers. "Because the best results you get in a study of life expectancy are when you follow the people involved in it throughout their lives," the two psychologists said. But of course, the individual researcher’s life is not enough to do this. If, for example, a test subject is ten years old at the start of the study and the researcher is 40, the latter would have to live to be over 100 years old in order to be able to observe his test subject until his death. Friedman and Martin therefore preferred to continue a research project that has been monitoring the lives of U.S. citizens since 1921.
Corona update: Sign up for the newsletter here for free!
We will always keep you up to date on the latest developments.
It was founded by Lewis Terman, a psychologist at Stanford University. He was annoyed at the time that the theory was widely held in the U.S. that intelligent people, because they were supposedly too inhibited and neurotic, were unhealthier than others with rather low intelligence quotients. He saw parents taking away their children’s books and sending them out to play games. Terman, who specialized in intelligence research, couldn’t stand it. So he decided to initiate his own study. To do this, he recruited 1528 elementary school children with IQ scores above 135 to collect detailed data on their health, as well as their family history and daily lives.
Terman died in 1956. From his study, he had by then come to the conclusion that "gifted children outperform their peers in health". What strengthened him in his view that a high IQ is a characteristic which should be developed further and further by breeding in mankind. Despite these eugenic excesses, other researchers continued his project because Terman’s data set was large and meticulously processed. They had the "termites," as the participants called themselves in reference to their investigator, fill out an extensive questionnaire every five years. And when they died, they had the death certificates sent to them to learn about the cause of their demise.
In 1990, Friedman and Martin began working with the data. They realized that no correlation could actually be established between intelligence, social status and health, because the test subjects were all highly intelligent and came from white, well-off families, so there was no comparison group on these points. But this restriction also had a decisive advantage: IQ and social status were no longer confounding variables in the effort to learn more about the decisive factors of life expectancy.
For example, exercise was shown to have little effect on delaying the age at death. "The men and women selected by Terman had been born decades before the invention of jogging shoes, fitness centers and fashionable medical tests, but many had long and healthy lives," the psychologists said. Optimism also prolongs life less than is suspected. Pessimists do die earlier, but that’s because they experience more accidents and violence against themselves. "Doomsayers live dangerously," warn the two psychologists, "they often embark on a risky path in life."Which is quite astonishing, because one would expect little risk-taking from a pessimist, because he considers many things futile and therefore seldom becomes active. But with his attitude he also attracts more misfortune and violence to himself. According to the principle of self-fulfilling prophecy: If I only expect disaster long and hard, it will come.
Nonetheless, longer life comes less from optimism and enjoyment of life than from conscientiousness. "Those who are frugal, persistent, detail-oriented and responsible live the longest," sum up Friedman and Martin. "Toward the end of the 20. By the end of the twentieth century, 70 percent of Terman men and 51 percent of Terman women had died – and it was mostly the undisciplined who had passed on." That sounds little comfort to all the slobs, while dutiful worker bees can hope for a long life.
Discipline keeps you healthy
There may be something to it, though. This is how the philosopher Immanuel Kant lived to be almost 80 years old despite a weak physical constitution. Not only did he formulate the categorical imperative, his Konigsberg roommates also set their watches according to his walks because he always took them at the same time. Friedrich Nietzsche, on the other hand, propagated oblivious ecstasy and felt overwhelmed by life and women – he only lived to be 55 years old. The chaotic Mozart died at the age of 35, while the prudent Bach lived to be 65 years old, which was quite impressive at the time.
The question remains why rather boring virtues such as conscientiousness, single-mindedness and a sense of duty have a life-prolonging effect. "The first and perhaps most obvious reason is that disciplined people do more to maintain their health and do fewer risky things," the researchers explained. They drink and smoke less, and when driving, they find the brake pedal rather than the gas pedal.
Another, less obvious reason is that conscientious people are usually psychosomatically robust. Thus, their brains often show a high level of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which on the one hand makes them less impulsive, but on the other hand also ensures good sleep, a good mood as well as a reasonable appetite. Discipline therefore not only ensures life-prolonging circumstances, it also feeds on psychosomatic conditions that have a life-prolonging effect.
But Friedman and Martin say it’s especially important that conscientious people "seek out healthier living situations and relationships because of who they are". For example, you’re more likely to find happy marriages, better friendships, and stable jobs. Not to mention that determined people are less likely to get bogged down and thus conserve energy, leaving them more strength for life’s adversities.
But Friedman and Martin themselves point out that their study results should not be generalized. Their "termites" were lucky enough to be rewarded for their Prussian virtues with well-paid jobs during the economic boom of the post-war years. On the other hand, if you work hard but can’t do anything about a raging recession, you’re more likely to build up frustration and probably won’t achieve longevity as a result.
And what does a person do who is not born with discipline and reliability?? In the study, those who were already mini-Prussians in childhood lived the longest. But one also had "a few wild, unruly boys" who did not become fathers until after their 40th birthday. If you’ve been living life to the fullest and have been rewarded with a longer life. So even at a mature age, it’s worth making the switch from chaotic to disciplined self-organizer.