Scientists have conducted a great deal of research to learn how physical health, diet and genetics relate to longevity, but they’ve paid little attention to mental health or personality.
To plug this shortfall, researchers from Italy, Switzerland and the US teamed up to find out if there are any special traits that help people live to a healthy old age.
Some of their findings may be bad news for those of us who have to live with a loved one who makes it past 90!
A Region Full of Centenarians
The focus of the study was an area of rural southern Italy called Cilento, noted for the number of people living to 90 and beyond.
Out of a total population of 60,000 there are around 2000 people over a hundred years of age — an unusually high proportion.
For the study, 29 people aged between 90 and 101 from nine villages in the region participated, together with 51 relatives aged between 51 and 75.
Established measures were used to rate the physical and mental well-being of all participants. The older group had to fill in questionnaires and agree to be interviewed about their beliefs and the events of their lives. Their younger family members were questioned about the personalities of the 90-plus group.
Self-Confident and Good at Making Decisions
The researchers found, as expected, that the over 90s had poorer physical health. But surprisingly their mental health was found to be in better shape than the younger group.
The main themes that emerged for the older volunteers were positivity (resilience and optimism), a strong work ethic, religious faith, and love of one’s family. The researchers also listed a need for control, love of the land, and “a balance between acceptance of and grit to overcome adversities.”
Lead author Anna Scelzo reported, “The group’s love of their land is a common theme and gives them a purpose in life. Most of them are still working in their homes and on the land. They think, ‘This is my life and I’m not going to give it up’.
“We also found that this group tended to be domineering, stubborn and needed a sense of control, which can be a desirable trait as they are true to their convictions and care less about what others think.
“This tendency to control the environment suggests a notable grit that is balanced by a need to adapt to changing circumstances.”
In short, these are strong, opinionated people. Those aren’t their only traits, to be sure, but they figure in the mix.
The Paradox of Aging
Fellow author Dr. Dilip Jeste, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, commented that the study shows how wisdom and mental well-being can increase with aging even when physical health is declining. He called this the paradox of aging.
“Things like happiness and satisfaction with life went up,” according to Dr. Jeste, “and levels of depression and stress went down. It’s the opposite of what we might expect when we think about aging, but it shows that getting older is not all gloom and doom.
“These people have been through depressions, they’ve been through migrations, they’ve lost loved ones. In order to flourish, they have to be able to accept and recover from the things they can’t change, but also fight for the things they can.”
He went on to say that we can all learn a lot from the attitudes and lifestyles of these long-lived Italians. Such insights can help us extend our own lives.
At the same time, this small study in a very special culture is not the last word on a complicated subject.