Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: Just how much of a role do personality traits have in determining how long someone will live? Recent news reports have suggested that they're important, but the explanation didn't really make that much sense to me.

Dear Reader: The idea that the way we view or interact with the world around us can affect our health is an intriguing one, and several studies have taken on the topic over the years. Since we're not sure which of these you're referring to, we'll look at a couple of the most recent ones.

Researchers in Italy who studied a group of 29 elderly men and women aged between 90 and 101 said their findings suggest that mental outlook plays a significant role in well-being. This is a departure from other approaches to the topic of longevity, which have focused on genetics. Despite the typical health issues you would expect to see among individuals of this advanced age, the subjects of the study were found to have more self-confidence than their younger relatives, who were also included in the study.

Using questionnaires and interviews, the researchers concluded that the elderly group, who had more positive feelings about their lives than their younger relatives did, exerted greater control over their lives and surroundings. They achieved this by being stubborn and domineering, personality traits that the researchers tied to their longevity. They also had strong ties to family, to their homes and land, and to their spiritual practices.

Thanks to this blend of resilience and optimism, the group of elders appeared to have struck a balance that helped them weather the many challenges they faced over the decades. And while lifestyle factors like diet and exercise were not the focus of this particular study, the researchers agreed that they are also quite likely to play a role.

Another study, this one based in England, analyzed the health and lifestyle data of 500,000 individuals ranging in age from 37 to 73. The researchers wondered whether being neurotic would have an effect on the length of an individual's lifespan. When they looked at the broad category of neurosis, they found a "weak correlation" between being neurotic and a shorter lifespan.

However, when they separated the data into sub-categories, they got a surprise. It turned out that neurotic individuals who self-reported their health as either fair or poor actually had longer lifespans. Neurotic individuals who said they were in good or excellent health didn't get the same boost to longevity. In this study, the conclusion was not that the neuroses themselves extended an individual's life. Instead, the personality traits associated with being neurotic led people to be more aware of their aches and pains, and to be more aggressive in seeking medical care. With more frequent assessments and screenings, serious conditions such as cancer or cardiovascular disease would be caught earlier and would thus be more responsive to treatment.

For those of us who are neither neurotic nor 90-year-olds living in rural Italy, there are still useful takeaways from the studies: Have regular medical checkups, be vigilant about basic screenings, and strive for a positive outlook even in trying times.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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