Lagergren reviews Friedman and Martin's recent book on the 8-decade long longevity study started in 1921 at Stanford University by Lewis Terman, which has followed the histories of 1,500 gifted children from schools in the state and followed them from the age of 11 into adulthood, collecting a variety of data to see what might predict later success and accomplishment. The recent update collects information on those who have died.
Some results are as expected, such as that smoking is bad for longevity. Others turn conventional wisdom on its head...working hard for long hours in a demanding job to achieve high status is better for your health and life expectancy than taking it easy and lacking ambition. Marriage is a blessing for men more than women; and men suffer more adverse health effects from divorce, perhaps turning to drink or drugs. The authors emphasize the benefits of an active social network — more common for women — as a buffer against life's harmful events. And they are critical of simple health advice, such as to jog or eat less fat, arguing that it is the whole approach to life that is essential, not the details. To give a person a list of health recommendations does not work, they point out, if the person cannot or does not follow them.
The best predictor of a long and healthy life turned out to be conscientiousness — the extent to which a child was prudent, dependable and persistent in the accomplishment of his or her goals...You do not become conscientious overnight. It is the long-term, determined work of adopting and sticking to healthy habits and seeking good social environments and relationships that makes the difference. Later follow-up of Terman's subjects showed that conscientiousness in middle age and later counts almost as much as in childhood... Conscientious people do more to protect their health and are less likely to engage in risky activities such as smoking, drinking or drug-taking, the study found. They also find their way to happier marriages, better friendships and optimum work situations. As a result, they are less likely to die from all causes...
Being physically active as a child is also a predictor of longevity, but only if that activity is maintained into and beyond middle age. The life-years gained by jogging may amount to no more than the time you spend doing it, the authors note. So we needn't all aim to run marathons; rather, we should just maintain an activity that we enjoy.