December 27, 2013
Getting to 100 – What Makes for a Long and Healthy life?
“Eat boiled corn with codfish and cream, and laugh...”
“Smoke a good cigar, avoid alcohol, drink water, stay positive, and sing.”
“Thumb your nose at sadness, turn the tables on tragedy, laugh instead of getting angry, and don’t feel envious of anyone.”
“Find a good wife and drink two scotches every night.”
“Fight injustice, help people in trouble and keep your mind active.”
“Do something new each day, avoid drama and stay far away from difficult people.”
“Mind your own business, don’t eat junk food, treat others well, and work hard at what you love.”
“Live for God, pray and surround yourself with nice people.”
These are ten responses given by people who have lived more than 100 years to the question - “Why have you lived so long?”
I’ve thought about the fact of longevity, especially this week, because I visited a house of mourning for a 39 year-old man whose life was cut way too short by cancer, and two days later I officiated at the funeral of a venerable 102 year-old woman who had it all.
Common wisdom says that if we eat well, exercise and manage stress; if we maintain our social connections and faith, then we’ll live long and happily!
Of course, this isn’t always the case. Some of us are more prone to disease and accident than others no matter how healthy we try and live.
Researchers say that genetic factors offer only part of the explanation for why we live longer or shorter amounts of time, but there's much more to it. It’s now clear that there are many behavioral factors contributing to a person’s longevity including health and health behaviors, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, stress, social and environmental support, mental health, and life satisfaction.
Perhaps the most important study on longevity is “The Longevity Project” written by psychology professors Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin of UC Riverside, who culminate an eight-decade long study begun in 1921 of 1500 precocious children by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman. Terman died in 1956 so future researchers picked up where he left off, including Drs. Friedman and Martin.
The 1500 children were followed in meticulous detail throughout their lives. In studying them Friedman and Martin conclude that
“The best childhood predictor of longevity [is] conscientiousness—the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person—somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree….It’s not the happy-go-lucky who thrive—it’s the prudent and persistent who flourish through the years.”
They offer three possible reasons for this. First,
“…conscientious people do more … to protect their health and engage in fewer [risky] activities …. are less likely to smoke or drive too fast. They buckle their seat belts and follow the doctor’s advice…They are not necessarily risk averse but they tend to be sensible in evaluating how far to push the envelope.”
Second, some of us are
“…biologically predisposed to be …more conscientious and healthier ….less prone to develop certain diseases, … these people have different levels of the chemical…serotonin in their brains [serotonin helps to determine happiness and well-being]…Individuals with low levels of serotonin tend to be much more impulsive…” and they eat more and sleep less.
“Having a conscientious personality leads a person into healthier situations and relationships… happier marriages, better friendships and healthier work situations.”
This study showed that kids described as cheerful and optimistic did not live as long as those boring and serious kids who worried constantly about school, studied and worked hard.
The one factor that best predicted long life, even more than happiness itself, is purposeful goal-oriented work, whether for a paycheck or for its own sake. People who are drawn to live their lives, however, with other like-minded, healthy, active and involved people significantly increase the odds of their living longer and more happily.
And so, what does our tradition have to offer about what makes for a long and good life?
The Book of Proverbs instructs us to behave moderately in all things, to seek the middle path, to acquire knowledge and understanding in the ways of the world, and to seek higher wisdom. We’re called upon to build stable communities that care for all its citizens, to act with dignity, integrity, honesty, generosity, and kindness, to respect the wisdom given us by the generations, to heal ourselves and repair the world, and to walk humbly before God.
Judaism teaches that it’s not the number of days or years that we live, it’s the quality of those days that matters.
I pray that each of us will be blessed not only with length of years, but also with the knowledge that we lived ethically and compassionately having contributed to making our world a better place. Amen!