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How long will you live?

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A fun activity when you are with a group of friends would be to ask the question: "What personality characteristic was most associated with long life?" It could lead to an interesting conversation with many different ideas presented. But, unless someone had read the book "Longevity Project," probably no one would come up with the correct answer.

I have not read the book "Longevity Project,' but I have read reviews of the 80 year study that it analyzes. The study was begun in 1921 by Dr. Lewis Terman, a Stanford University psychologist. Dr.Terman chose 1,528 bright San Francisco 11-year-olds for a long-term study of the social predictors of intellectual leadership. He studied their play habits, their parents' marriages and their personalities. He and his team followed up with the participants every five or 10 years. Colleagues continued the study after Dr. Terman died in 1956.

Dr. Howard Friedman and Dr. Leslie Martin, both professors of psychology in California, thoroughly researched Dr. Terman's study and several other studies of long life. From this research the personality characteristic they found most associated with long life was conscientiousness, the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized, somewhat obsessive, but not at all carefree person.

This conclusion probably surprised most people who assume that biology would be the most critical factor in longevity. But, all the studies disagree. Genes constitute only about one-third of the factors leading to long life. The other two-thirds have to do with lifestyles and chance.

There are three explanations for the dominant role of conscientiousness. The first and most obvious is that conscientious people are more likely to live healthy lifestyles, to not smoke or drink to excess, wear seat belts, follow doctors' orders and take medication as prescribed. Second, conscientious people tend to find themselves not only in healthier situations but also in healthier relationships: happier marriages, better friendships, healthier work situations.

The third factor is more intriguing. Some people are biologically predisposed to be not only more conscientious but also healthier. They not only tend to avoid violent deaths and illnesses linked to smoking and drinking, but conscientious individuals are less prone to a whole host of diseases, not just those caused by dangerous habits. The precise physiological explanation is unknown but seems to have to do with levels of chemicals like serotonin in the brain.

Conscientiousness determines how an individual approaches lifestyles which lead to long life. The organization and persistence required for regular healthy exercise leads to a healthier life. A hard job even if stressful can be associated with longevity, as long as the job is enjoyed and people are involved, working hard, were responsible, and successful, no matter what field they work in. Marriage and the husband's and wife's happiness is a good predictor of future health and longevity, and their mutual compatibility was also a strong factor in predicting their children's longevity. But, conscientiousness by two compatible individuals is what makes a successful marriage.

The conscientious pursuit of healthy exercise in today's sedentary work environment leads to a healthier life. This requires organization and persistence. The Y with its wide variety of exercise choices and family friendly environment is the ideal destination for many conscientious individuals and families to pursue healthy exercise.