From Our 2012 Archives
Personality Secrets to a Long Life
Researchers Find Centenarians Optimistic, Extroverted, Positive; Some Became That Way Later in Life
By Kathleen Doheny
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD
May 30, 2012 -- A new study may offer some tips to help you stick around for your 100th birthday.
Try to be optimistic, easygoing, sociable, and conscientious. Don't bottle up your feelings. Suppress the urge to talk ill of others, the new research suggests.
That combination of personality factors seems to describe the secrets of living to 100, says researcher Nir Barzilai, PhD, director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y.
Those findings are among the latest from Barzilai's ongoing Longevity Genes Project.
While Barzilai found that those personality factors offer more clues to longevity, he has a caveat: "Still the No. 1 predictor for being a centenarian is if you have parents who are centenarians."
Even so, he is trying to answer the question: "Are the genes that are longevity genes also personality genes?"
The new research is published in the journal Aging.
Longevity & Personality Study
Living to 100 years old is still rare. About 53,000 people in the U.S., or 0.2% of the population, are 100-plus. However, the number of centenarians has been increasing about 8% a year, Barzilai says.
And that has captured his research interest and that of others around the country. "There are several groups doing studies on centenarians," Barzilai says.
Some research has already suggested that centenarians share particular personality traits.
Among them: being extroverted and agreeable.
Barzilai decided to look more closely at genetically based personality characteristics.
He recruited 243 centenarians. He gave them and their family members questionnaires that asked if they had characteristics such as optimism.
He gauged how easygoing they were, how outgoing, and how much they laughed. He looked at how freely they expressed emotions.
He looked at characteristics like conscientiousness, such as a tendency to be self-disciplined.
He looked at neuroticism, a tendency to express negatives emotions such as anxiety, anger, or guilt.
He compared their scores to averages found in the U.S. population.
He also did a validation study to reduce the impact of any mental impairment. Nineteen centenarians and 26 of their children participated in the validation study.
In general, he found those who live to 100:
The link he found is just that, Barzilai says. "It doesn't mean there is a cause-and-effect relationship."
One problem, he says, is they don't have -- and can't have -- a comparison group. "Their friends died years ago, and younger people won't work [as a comparison group]," he says.
One surprise? Some of the 100-year-olds, he found out, were not always easygoing and agreeable, he says. He found that out while talking to some of the centenarians' children.
"There is some adaptation with age," he says. "You try to focus on the good things and not on the bad."
"If they are getting hit [with problems]," he says of his centenarians, "they roll with the punches and they smile. When they are healthy and they get to 100, they are very agreeable.''
The easygoing personalities didn't hold across the board. He tells of one woman's daughter who confided that her mother was mean.
Later, her siblings declined to even talk to Barzilai for the study because they had nothing to do with their mother.
Personality & Longevity: Perspective
"I really believe these are some of the mechanisms [of longevity]," says Daniela Jopp, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Fordham University.
Her own research on centenarians has found some similar links. She reviewed the study findings.
"We know personality has a strong genetic background," she says. Those who live to 100, Jopp says, "seem to have a very special psychological makeup."
Those who age successfully adjust their expectations about health, she has found. They accept a few aches and pains, she says. They don't focus on complaints, such as having trouble sleeping.
Based on her work and that of others, Jopp says for now she can give this advice to those who want to make it to 100: "Don't get too stressed out," she says.
"People who are optimistic and look positively into the future have not only a better time, but it may help them live longer," she says.
In her research, she finds those living to 100 tend to be well aware of their limited life expectancy, but to continue to make plans anyway.
SOURCES: Nir Barzilai, MD, director of the Institute for Aging Research, Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, the Bronx, N.Y. Kato, K. Aging, May 2012. Daniela S. Jopp, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, Fordham University, the Bronx, N.Y.