How to Live Longer: Truths and Myths

PHOTO: A photo of the book cover, "The Longevity Project", from HUDSON STREET PRESS.

Drs. Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin studied 1,500 people at Stanford University to find out who lives the longest and why. Their book, "The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study," documents the findings of this study. It discusses the character traits they found associated with long life, and addresses some of the common myths about longevity.

Read the introduction to 'The Longevity Project' below.

Introduction: The Breakthrough Studies of a Lifetime

In September 1921, a talented young schoolgirl named Patricia and her precocious classmate John were pulled out of their San Francisco classrooms by a Stanford University psychologist, Lewis Terman. Dr. Terman was looking for gifted children and had asked their teachers to pick out the brightest kids in the class. He was interested in the sources of intellectual leadership and wondered if he could identify early glimmers of high potential.

Eighty years later, both Patricia and John were still alive at ninety-one years old. They had beaten the odds and lived very long and healthy lives. What was their secret? In an effort to find out, we have spent the past twenty years following up on the people in Dr. Terman's studies and investigating why some people thrive well into old age while others fall ill and die prematurely. Along the way, we've discovered that many common health recommendations are ill-advised or simply wrong. We've replaced those with more accurate guideposts to a longer, healthier life.

The 1,500 or so bright boys and girls selected by Dr. Terman were born around 1910. Almost all of them are now gone. We have documented when and how they died, and we have studied their lives in meticulous detail. Although many died by their sixties, many others aged in good health and lived well into old age. Surprisingly, the long-lived among them did not find the secret to health in broccoli, medical tests, vitamins, or jogging. Rather, they were individuals with certain constellations of habits and patterns of living. Their personalities, career trajectories, and social lives proved highly relevant to their long-term health, often in ways we did not expect.

The usual piecemeal suggestions given to those who want to improve their health ("relax," "eat vegetables," "lose weight," "get married") are lifesaving for some but neither effective nor economical for many. In fact, standard medical advice often backfires, leaving us overweight and stressed out as we struggle to follow specific edicts. Our society spends a fortune on health care, fad diets, pharmaceuticals, and a variety of short-term remedies that help somewhat; but there is often disappointingly little effect on our long-term health and longevity.

The late comedian and actress Lucille Ball had her own secret to staying young: live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.i Lucy was both right and wrong. Living honestly, our data show, really can be important, but eating slowly doesn't much matter. Lying about your age and your health does indeed represent a challenge to health researchers, but we have figured out ways to outwit the Lucys of the world and get around this common source of research bias.

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