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Centenarians’ secret is optimism?

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/Laszlo Bencze

I’m not sure this is science.

But in an age when Scientific American can take seriously a claim that atheists’ brains are wired differently, I’ll at least have a look at this: “’Personality Genes’ May Help Account for Longevity” (ScienceDaily, May 24, 2012):

It’s in their genes” is a common refrain from scientists when asked about factors that allow centenarians to reach age 100 and beyond. Up until now, research has focused on genetic variations that offer a physiological advantage such as high levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol. But researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology of Yeshiva University have found that personality traits like being outgoing, optimistic, easygoing, and enjoying laughter as well as staying engaged in activities may also be part of the longevity genes mix.

Previous studies have indicated that personality arises from underlying genetic mechanisms that may directly affect health. The present study of 243 of the centenarians (average age 97.6 years, 75 percent women) was aimed at detecting genetically-based personality characteristics by developing a brief measure (the Personality Outlook Profile Scale, or POPS) of personality in centenarians.

“When I started working with centenarians, I thought we’d find that they survived so long in part because they were mean and ornery,” said Nir Barzilai, M.D., the Ingeborg and Ira Leon Rennert Chair of Aging Research, director of Einstein’s Institute for Aging Research and co-corresponding author of the study. “But when we assessed the personalities of these 243 centenarians, we found qualities that clearly reflect a positive attitude towards life. Most were outgoing, optimistic and easygoing. They considered laughter an important part of life and had a large social network. They expressed emotions openly rather than bottling them up.” In addition, the centenarians had lower scores for displaying neurotic personality and higher scores for being conscientious compared with a representative sample of the U.S. population.

Grandma! There you are! I’ve been looking all over for you!

As it happens, one of my grandmothers was a centenarian (d. at 101). I do remember her as a person who was cheerful despite all the challenges that came with having raised children (ten of them) through World War I , the Twenties, the Great Depression, and World War II, then the massive changes in social life that followed.

In 1998, a number of her descendants sent gifts to the Lodge where she lived, then in her late nineties, to help pay for a new lift. The director wrote to thank my mother, saying,

Your mother is one of the original residents here, and she is just an amazing lady. She still enjoys the programs and especially when the children from St. Augustine come. Perhaps her true appreciation of fun is the secret to her good health and longevity.

Perhaps. Alas, many people who had a true appreciation of fun had predeceased her by decades. Including some of her children.

That is, incidentally, a source of deep sorrow to a woman who lives to so great an age, and retains her faculties: The odd business of burying people who should have been chief mourners at her own funeral. And having the aged children of her closest friends (now themselves living in the retirement residence) as her peers.

Grandma would often say that she wished she had predeceased her children – not because she was tired of living but because her life circumstances felt so disjointed. Why didn’t the bell toll for her?

Then one day, in her 102nd year, it did. She felt unwell, and suddenly left us.

Those who pray to be centenarians could do worse than pray that their friends are too.

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One Response to Centenarians’ secret is optimism?

  1. 1

    my grandfather made it to 100. my dad didn’t make 80.
    The bible says we are given 70 years and 80 with health.
    So health as a life goal can add to our given 70. Remembering god decides when we all die.
    Then the bible mentions in provereds other reasons for longer life. Many of them.
    So these promises would add to ones total and so add to a healthy 80 year old.
    no bilogical reason.

    The only thing I ever noticed about the old was that at some point past 60 or so they get a regular routine of doing something.
    Some read their bible with coffe in the morning exactly the same for years or they drink wine in the evening or take some herb or this or that exactly at the same time for decades.

    Perhaps this routine, which they mention, gives a profound sedative to ones physical being that is so profound it gives longer life.
    One has a great massage of ones inner being and so the outer.

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