By Laura Landro for The Wall Street Journal
What can 1,500 Americans born a century ago, most of them long dead, tell us about the secret to a long life? Plenty, according to Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin, two psychologists who, in "The Longevity Project," mine an eight-decade research effort for answers to the kinds of questions that sent Ponce de León searching for the Fountain of Youth.
There are no magic potions on offer here, but many of the findings are provocative. The best childhood predictor of longevity, it turns out, is a quality best defined as conscientiousness: "the often complex pattern of persistence, prudence, hard work, close involvement with friends and communities" that produces a well-organized person who is "somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree."
The study was initiated in 1921 by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman, who asked San Francisco teachers to pick out their brightest students—most were about 10 years old—to help him try to identify early glimmers of high potential. Terman was most interested in intellectual achievement (his revision of Alfred Binet's intelligence scale produced the Stanford-Binet IQ test), but his interviews were so detailed that the results could be used as a basis for studying the respondents' lives in follow-up interviews across the years. Terman himself died in 1956, just shy of 80; after his death his work was picked up by others, with Mr. Friedman and Ms. Martin launching their portion of the project in 1990.
The study's participants, dubbed Terman's Termites, were bright students, but having a high IQ didn't seem to play a direct role in longevity. Neither did going on to an advanced degree. The authors suggest that persistence and the ability to navigate life's challenges were better predictors of longevity.
Some of the findings in "The Longevity Project" are surprising, others are troubling. Cheerful children, alas, turned out to be shorter-lived than their more sober classmates. The early death of a parent had no measurable effect on children's life spans or mortality risk, but the long-term health effects of broken families were often devastating. Parental divorce during childhood emerged as the single strongest predictor of early death in adulthood. The grown children of divorced parents died almost five years earlier, on average, than children from intact families. The causes of death ranged from accidents and violence to cancer, heart attack and stroke. Parental break-ups remain, the authors say, among the most traumatic and harmful events for children.