This one personality trait is associated with living longer

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by Dr. Eowyn

While unhealthy habits like smoking, excessive alcohol, and obesity are proven to take years off a person’s life, there’s more and more evidence that personality may be the greatest indicator of life longevity.

Adam Chapman reports for the UK Express, July 11, 2019, that in the last decade researchers have found evidence that personality plays an important role in health-related processes. However, studies linking personality with health, such as cardiovascular heart disease, have primarily focused on negative personality traits, such as depression, Type A behaviour and hostility.

Now, a new study published in the journal of the American Psychological Association found that a positive personality attribute — that of conscientiousness — plays a key role in determining longevity.

U. C. Riverside distinguished professor of psychology Howard S. Friedman and graduate student Margaret L. Kern analysed data from 20 studies that focused on conscientiousness-related traits and longevity, involving more than 8,900 participants from the United States, Canada, Germany, Norway, Japan and Sweden.

The study analyzed three specific facets of conscientiousness:

  1. Responsibility/self-control: being socially responsible, self-controlled and not impulsive.
  2. Order: being organised, efficient and disciplined.
  3. Achievement: being achievement oriented, persistent and industrious.

Here are the findings:

  • Highly conscientious people live on average 2-4 years longer, are less likely to smoke or drink to excess, and live more stable and less stressful lives.
  • Conscientiousness measured in childhood predicts longevity decades into the future. Higher levels of conscientiousness, as rated by parents and teachers in 1922, were significantly related to longer life.
  • Of the three facets of consciousness, achievement and order are most linked to longevity.

Dr. Friedman said: “The major finding is that this conscientiousness aspect of personality is indeed reliably predictive of mortality risk across studies. This seems to be as important as most commonly assessed medical risk factors, few of which are psychological. Not only do conscientious individuals have better health habits and less risk-taking, but they also travel life pathways toward healthier psychosocial environments – such as more stable jobs and marriages – and may even have a biological predisposition toward good health.”

Kern said: “There is some evidence that people can become more conscientious, especially as they enter stable jobs or good marriages.We think our findings can challenge people to think about their lives and what may result from the actions they do. Even though conscientiousness cannot be changed in the short term, improvements can emerge over the long run as individuals enter responsible relationships, careers and associations.”

Friedman and Kern said the findings should inform practical approaches to living longer: “On the practical side, personality is indeed an important, health-relevant component of personhood, and treatment decisions and long-term interventions should consider how personality may contribute to, or detract from, health. On the conceptual side, it appears important to understand how individual differences – especially involving conscientiousness – cause and are shaped by trajectories and events across the life span. Personality is important to health, and future research should consider precisely why this is, and the best ways this knowledge can be used to improve people’s health.”

Other studies found these other factors that are conducive to living longer:

  • Diet is important, especially a no- or low-sugar diet, rich in vegetables and fruits, as shown by:
    • People in Okinawa, a chain of islands south of Japan, have the highest rates of centenarians in the world. These islanders live on a traditional local diet that is rich in vegetables, soy products and seafood with hardly any sugar, except sugar found in the fruits they eat.
    • In Pioppi, a village in southern Italy, residents often live to the age of 100. Pippions follow a Mediterranean diet that is rich in plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, but low in sugar. Pippions only eat desserts on Sundays. Dr. Aseem Malhortra, who studied the Pippion lifestyle, said: “Diet is the number one issue. More than physical inactivity, smoking and alcohol, it contributes to more disease and deaths. This should be the message form doctors – food is medicine.”
  • A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Healthfound that early retirement may be a risk factor for dying earlier, whereas healthy adults who retired one year past age 65 had an 11% lower risk of death from all causes, even when taking into account demographic, lifestyle and health issues. (I believe it’s not later retirement per se that accounts for greater longevity. It’s whether a person is active, purposeful, and engaged with the world.)
  • An Australian longitudinal study of ageing found that close relationships with children and other relatives had very little impact on how long you live, but people with the most friends tended to outlive those with the fewest by 22%.

Note that the personality attribute of conscientiousness is linked to the above factors in that being self-controlled and disciplined is conducive to the ability to adhere to a good diet, and those who achievement-oriented and industrious will remain active and engaged even after retirement.



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