How to Live Longer: Truths and Myths


When Dr. Terman began studying Patricia and John and these hundreds of other bright boys and girls in California, he collected all sorts of valuable information about the children's families, schooling, and activities. He recorded how many books were in their houses, how active they were in their playtime, and how happy their parents' marriages were. He measured their personalities—were they prudent, extroverted, cheerful? He then followed his participants as they grew up, made career choices, and had families of their own.

When he launched the study in 1921, Dr. Terman was in his mid-forties. He died in 1956, but the project continued, carried on by others. We began serious work on this study in 1990 and so often use the phrases "our study" or "our project" when talking about analyses, findings, and interpretations. But this is not in any way intended to ignore or minimize the tremendous debt we all owe to Dr. Terman, to his collaborators, and to the Terman participants and their families.

A key to success for much of our work on better understanding health and longevity was gathering the death certificates of Terman's study participants from states and counties across the United States. It turned out to be a very difficult and time-consuming task, as each state, county, or city agency has its own procedures and requirements for obtaining a vital statistic document like a death certificate. (Here's a tip: if you want to be studied by health researchers, don't die in New York City.) But we persisted and now have this invaluable resource.

Having determined how long each of the Terman participants lived (and the precise cause of death), we were able to design and conduct a series of studies that were never before possible. We used both sophisticated statistical models and a variety of examinations of personalities, social relations, and behaviors. We looked at people who shared characteristics—those with similar personalities, say, or a history of divorce -- to see whether those traits predicted their health over time. Many of our findings took us by surprise.

You may be wondering if it's fair to generalize from these Terman study participants, who lived in different times and were mostly bright, educated, and middle class. Are the lessons of their lives applicable to people today? It depends on circumstances: a migrant farm worker with little access to education or health care, or a poverty-stricken peasant infected with HIV, has other, more significant threats to his or her health. However, most readers of this book—people who are bright, educated, and interested in health and success—are usually not that different in relevant ways from the Terman participants.

You Might Also Like...