Have you ever noticed that in spite of the media blitz urging you to eat veggies and pump weights, some of the most health-conscious people you know seem to keel over at an early age, while others who eat junk and live fast keep on kicking up until their 90s? Perhaps it's because when it comes to longevity, psychology matters at least as much as biology. Consider the results of these four surprising studies looking at what controls longevity:
1. Attitudes about aging are more important than diet or exercise in extending your life. A study out of Yale University in 2002 followed 650 people, and found that those who had a positive outlook about their own aging outlived those with negative views by 7.5 years, on average, regardless of pre-existing health problems, lifestyle factors, socioeconomic status, or gender. In fact, the study found that attitude was the single most important factor in predicting longevity, after controlling for age. Another study in Norway found that the most optimistic subjects were 77 percent less likely to die of a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular cause than the most pessimistic subjects, regardless of weight, pre-existing cardiovascular issues, smoking, and so on.
2. Having a network of good friends increases lifespan significantly; family doesn't. The Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging looked at 1500 people aged 70 or older, and found that those with an extensive circle of friends outlived those with the fewest friends by 22 percent. Having family around did not increase lifespan.
3. Continued schooling prolongs life. A 1999 study from Columbia University determined that ongoing education increases lifespan even more than having good medical care. Another study found that "each additional year of schooling for men in the U.S. is associated with an 8 percent reduction in mortality."
4. Finding meaning after loss is high on the longevity list. I heard years ago that the most significant factor in life extension--even more important than diet or exercise--is the ability to find meaning after losing loved ones. This becomes increasingly important with each passing year as we age, because inevitably, our friends and dear ones will start dying.
I'm not advising you to start gorging on chips and cupcakes--diet and exercise certainly do matter in life extension. But if you want to have a long, healthy, happy life--wheatgrass and aerobics alone won't do it. You need to cultivate friends, keep on learning, engage in activities that truly interest you, and find the gold in the process of getting older--and there is much to celebrate in the aging process. If you feel that you're stuck--that you just can't adjust your attitude or find the magic anymore or get yourself moving--consider getting some life coaching.