A new study finds that individuals who are outgoing and manage stress well have traits found in the children of people who lived to 100 years old, and longevity is thought to run in families.
"We have observed that these appear to be really important traits that set the children of centenarians apart from other people the same age who may not age as well," says Dr. Thomas Perls, at the Boston University School of Medicine.
The study, which focuses on older people and their family members, has tracked the health of children of centenarians as they age, trying to uncover the common denominators of longevity.
The latest findings are published online in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Because research had already found that longevity runs strongly in families, Dr. Perls and his colleagues decided to look at 246 offspring of those who lived to 100 to see if their children, now about age 75, had common personality traits.
They evaluated levels of five personality traits - neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness - and compared them with published norms for each trait.
They found that the offspring of centenarians were more extraverted than the published norms. That means "they are quite social, establish important friendships, and view these friendships as 'safety nets,' " important sources of help when needed, says Dr. Perls.
The offspring of centenarians scored lower than the norms on neuroticism, the study found. Dr. Perls says that translates into an ability to manage stress very well.
Women in the study also scored high in agreeableness, a trait that might pave the way for friendships, notes Dr. Perls. The men in the study were no higher in agreeableness than normal, and men and women scored average levels for openness and conscientiousness.
As for the exact relationship between personality and longevity, "we are relying on scientific literature to understand exactly what it means," says Dr. Perls.
For instance, he said, it makes sense that scoring lower in neuroticism - and handling stress well - would contribute to a longer life, because stress has been shown in scientific studies to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Other research has found social ties to be important to a senior person's health.
"We really found that the offspring of centenarians, in their 70s and early 80s, are very much following in the footsteps of their parents," says Dr. Perls. "They have 60 percent reduced rates of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes."
The latest study findings do not surprise Colin Milner, chief executive of the International Council on Active Aging, based in Vancouver, Canada.
"It's probably been said before in different ways," Milner says of the study's findings on the longevity benefits of managing stress and forming friendships.
"We are talking about the positive aspects of life," he adds.
Milner says that his grandmother, who is 98, has the traits Dr. Perls found that are associated with longevity.
When she became a widow, notes Milner, she stayed positive and remained open to new experiences - which for her included becoming a hockey fan - and making new friends.
When Milner gives lectures to people at retirement communities on active aging, "you walk in and see who is engaged in life," he says. "If you are engaged, you are less negative, more open, and more agreeable. That's why you are engaged."
And, says Milner, "People will engage with you" if you have those traits. But what to do if you are not naturally outgoing and are not good at handling stress?
Remember, says Dr. Perls, you can get better at each.
People can make a point of trying to be more outgoing, he says. They might plan to travel more, for instance, and would naturally meet people along the way.
"If you don't have a personality that naturally manages stress, figure out a way to reduce stress that works," says Dr. Perls. "Exercise, enjoy time with the family."
Always consult your physician for more information.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), feelings of stress are caused by the body's instinct to defend itself. This instinct is good in emergencies, but stress can cause physical symptoms if it goes on for too long, such as in response to life's daily challenges and changes.
The AAFP says when this happens, your body is working overtime, with no place to put all the extra energy. This can make you feel anxious, afraid, worried, and stressed.
Any sort of change can make you feel stressed, even good change, says the AAFP. How a person reacts to this stress is very important.
Stress can arise out of difficulties at home, in relationships, and in the workplace. Family "well-being" includes stable relationships, and family members' ability to fulfill essential roles in the home, child rearing values and practices, and the mental and physical health and development of every family member.
Stress can cause health problems or make problems worse if you do not learn ways to deal with it. Talk to your family doctor if you think some of your symptoms are caused by stress. It is important to make sure that your symptoms are not caused by other health problems.
Researchers are also trying to determine which workplace conditions influence employees' experiences of conflict between work and family roles; they are studying the effects of job stress on spouses and on marriage; and they are studying how parents' working conditions may affect their parenting and their children.
Emotional stress can lead to high blood pressure, increased susceptibility to substance abuse,and illness, less resistance to disease, and depression.
The first step is to learn to recognize when you are feeling stressed. Early warning signs of stress include tension in your shoulders and neck, or clenching your hands into fists.
The next step is to choose a way to deal with your stress. One way is to avoid the event or thing that leads to your stress - but often this is not possible. A second way is to change how you react to stress. This is often the best way.
Tips to reduce or manage the stress in your life include:
Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. A nutritious, well-balanced diet and exercise can keep your body fit and able to resist disease, and exercise is an excellent way to elevate your mood.
Talk about your stressful situations with someone you trust. Sometimes, just talking about your problems and concerns can help you put them into perspective and give you insights into ways to deal with them.
Stay organized to help with time management.
Remember, no one can do it all alone, so ask for help.
Use relaxation techniques to calm your mind and body.
Get professional help if you need it.
Always consult your physician for more information.