TUESDAY May 29, 2012 — If you want to live a long life, accent the positive and keep laughing, say researchers who have found that centenarians are often extroverts who embrace the world from an optimistic and carefree perspective.
The findings stem from the Longevity Genes Project, launched by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. All the participants in the latest study were over the age of 95, and all were of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish descent.
“We really were not sure what got them to their advanced age,” admitted study co-author Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of Einstein’s Institute for Aging Research and chair of its division of Aging Research. “Was it their personality, or something more in their genetics?”
“Our findings that these centenarians share such positive personality traits suggest that they may be associated with longevity,” he added.
Barzilai noted, however, that “the main message of the study is that [although] these centenarians have a ‘nice’ personality now, that was not always the case,” opening the door to the notion that it’s never too late to adopt a “can-do” spirit.
Barzilai and his colleagues discuss their findings in the May 21 online edition of the journal Aging.
The team points out that the United States is currently home to about 53,000 centenarians, representing about .2 percent of the population. But exactly how genetics figure into the longevity equation remains something of a mystery, as is how genetic predispositions that favor certain personality traits might affect the aging process.
To address the latter question, the authors first developed a 98-point questionnaire that was designed to screen for evidence of key personality traits.
It was then administered to 243 of those near 100 years old. Three-quarters were women, and all shared the same ethnicity, which enabled the team to make personality comparisons among genetically similar individuals.
The result: The majority of near-centenarians were found to be relaxed, friendly, conscientious and upbeat about life. Importantly, said the authors, an easy laugh and an active social life were observed to be a group norm, while neuroticism was notably the exception. What’s more, feelings were more commonly shared as they arose, rather than stifled and squelched.
Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University Medical Center, said the findings confirm several observations he and his colleagues have made in the past.
For example, Perls’ own team’s look at personality traits typically found among the children of centenarians suggested that “those who are high in neuroticism tend to dwell on things and internalize their stress rather than let it go,” he noted. “This can translate into increased risk for cardiovascular disease. High extroversion may lead to a better ability to establish social support networks — which is very good for older people — and to be cognitively engaged.”
“[So] these studies show people that they should do what they can to manage their stress better so that it doesn’t manage them,” Perls added. “People usually know what activities help them relieve stress. Like physical exercise, yoga, tai chi, laughing a lot, reading or art activities. And, of course, enough sleep. It is just a matter of setting aside the time and energy to do these things.”