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How going through hardship can help you live longer

BY Markham Heid

18th Jan 2023 Life

How going through hardship can help you live longer

Want to live longer? Conscientious worrying might just be the answer! Here's what your approach to hardship can say about your lifespan

During the Second World War, an American woman named Shelley Smith Mydans reported on the conflict for Life magazine. Along with her husband, the photographer Carl Mydans, Shelley documented battles in both Europe and the Pacific.

Midway through the war, the couple was captured in the Philippines. The Japanese held them in camps in Manila and Shanghai. But despite spending two years as prisoners of war, both Mydanses survived and went on to live long and productive lives. Shelley lived to 86, while Carl made it all the way to 97.

Many who survived the war were not so fortunate. A US serviceman named Philip was also in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. Even before the war, Philip was prone to anxiety and “catastrophising”—always predicting the worst. After he returned home, these traits intensified. Philip drank heavily and separated from his wife. Frustrated and resentful about his time overseas, blaming it for his failed marriage, Philip escalated his drinking. He tended not to exercise, and he was occasionally depressed. He died at age 64 of a heart attack.

Examining longevity

The Mydanses’ and Philip’s very different stories were recounted in The Longevity Project, a book that summarises an 80-year study based on interviews and health data collected from approximately 1,500 ­people—each followed from youth until death. Its authors came to an unlikely conclusion. “We found that many people who lived through hard times went on to live long lives,” says co-author Leslie Martin, a professor of psychology at California’s La Sierra University.

Unlike Philip, for whom the war seemed to push life onto a self-­destructive path, Martin says that the Mydanses appeared to turn their wartime experience into a source of motivation. “They didn’t see their stress as meaningless—it seemed to fuel them,” she says. “And this ability to think about the hard things we go through as ultimately beneficial seems to be important.” 

"A person’s ­approach to life is arguably the more important factor in longevity"

Eat right, exercise, avoid stress…These vague directives are often framed as the necessary ingredients for a long and healthy life. There is definitely truth to each of them. But those who have studied longevity say these are oversimplifications that tend to prioritise action over attitude. While day-to-day habits and behaviours matter, a person’s ­approach to life—­including, and maybe especially, the way he or she reacts to hardship—is arguably the more important factor in longevity.

Confronted by difficult times, a lot of people start drinking, smoking, abandoning exercise, cutting ties with friends, or making other unhealthy choices. These new habits can be hard to kick once the problematic period has passed. However, certain qualities seem to safeguard some people from such pitfalls, and experts say one quality consistently tops the list. In terms of personality characteristics, conscientiousness was the strongest predictor of a long life, according
to Martin.

Conscientious worrying

Conscientiousness refers to someone who is organised, prudent, and persistent in their pursuits. “Conscientious people are planful and ­responsible, not impulsive,” she says. “When they take on a task, they don’t give up easily.”

This may come as a surprise to those who assume carefree, take-it-easy types are best insulated against life’s many injuries and injustices. “We actually found the most cheerful and optimistic people lived shorter lives,” Martin says. “Being worried or anxious all the time is a problem, but a little worrying—when you’re thinking ahead and working through scenarios—can help you to be better prepared.” Conscientious worriers tend to put their fretting to good use: they make choices or changes in ­response to their concerns. Their worry­ing is productive, not pointless.

Conscientious worrying to live longer

The right kind of worrying can actually be good for you

While conscientious people are not totally risk-averse, they’re judicious about the risks they’re willing to take. They tend to wear their seat belts, eschew heavy drinking or drugs, and avoid other sources of undue risk. Conscientious people also tend to adopt and stick with healthy habits, and their awareness and diligence leads them into healthy relationships and jobs. All these tendencies promote a long and healthy life.

Peter Martin, a professor of gerontology at Iowa State University, makes it clear that “anyone who has lived to 100 has faced many difficult situations.” He echoes many of the above sentiments and mentions a few other characteristics that the long-lived seem to share. “They’re not uptight or neurotic,” he says. While not blasé about life’s challenges, people who live a long time usually don’t ­catastrophise—that is, they don’t ­assume the worst, which is a habit that can lead a person to make choices that get him or her into trouble, such as prematurely abandoning a healthy routine or a promising enterprise.”

Additionally, he says, those who live a long time tend not to engage in “upward comparisons.” They don’t spend a lot of time comparing themselves or their circumstances to those who are more fortunate. Instead, they think about people who have it worse or about past situations they endured that were even more difficult.

"A little worrying—when you’re thinking ahead and working through scenarios—can help you to be better prepared"

Another underappreciated element of longevity is something that Peter Martin refers to as gerotranscendence, which, roughly, is a preference for a cosmic or spiritual worldview rather than a materialistic or strictly rational one. He says many long-lived individuals seem to lean toward the spiritual as they age. “You see a pronounced reliance on religious beliefs—on putting faith in a higher power’s hands,” he says.

Adopting a more spiritual attitude may allow people to better work through the aspects of life that they find inscrutable or disconcerting. “When you’re able to hand things over to a higher being, that’s a way of letting go,” he says. At a certain point, letting go can reduce anger, frustration and other emotions that push people towards unhealthy thoughts or actions.

Going through hardship

Valter Longo is director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California. In 2019, Longo travelled around Italy to speak with centenarians in an effort to uncover patterns that might explain their enviable longevity. He says that two themes emerged. 

One was genetic good fortune. “They’d say, ‘My sister made it to 94, my brother to 98.’ So genes played a big part in it,” he says. “The other story was the person who did not have any long-lived siblings or parents but was in a concentration camp during the Second World War.” In other words, something about living through incredible hardship seemed to bestow longevity on certain survivors. Longo has a couple of theories about what that something could be.

His first is based in nutrition science. Much of his work—in mice and in people—has found that periods of fasting or caloric restriction can help clear away dead or dysfunctional cells in ways that may discourage the development of disease and also promote longevity. “If we give mice low levels of protein or calories for a while, then we feed them normally, they live longer than the mice we fed normally the whole time,” he says.

Senior woman smiling

Why do some people live longer than others?

While malnourishment is an extreme and inhumane example of forced deprivation, Longo points out that many places in the world where people tend to live into very old age are also places where people eat a vegetable-centric and meat-restricted diet. Along with clearing away dead or diseased cells, “eating this way could cause epigenetic changes that affect life span,” he says, referring to diet-induced alterations in the way some genes are expressed. 

His second theory is more of an observation. “One thing all these centenarians had in common is that they all wanted to live—they wanted to go on,” he says. “They didn’t say, ‘I’m ready to die’ or ‘I don’t care anymore.’ They were still interested in life and paying attention to everything.” While most people are passionate and engaged when they’re young, a great many lose these attributes as life wears on. And this loss seems to matter.

Adopting a postive outlook

Returning to the story of Philip, the heavy-drinking Second World War veteran who died young of a heart attack, Leslie Martin’s book says that he found his job merely “tolerable” and that he was looking forward to retirement—though he didn’t know how he would fill his time or whether he would ­enjoy himself. Even in his early sixties, he wasn't involved in activities that gave his life passion or purpose. 

Though some, like Philip, regard tough times as a sign that life is unfair or unpleasant, others emerge from a struggle with a greater sense of gratitude and a newfound resolve to commit their time and efforts to things that matter—to close friendships, to family bonds, or to hobbies or work for which they are passionate. ­Despite their two years in captivity, Carl Mydans and Shelley Smith Mydans gladly returned to Japan when Carl was tasked with leading Time-Life’s Tokyo bureau, and the two continued to be engaged, writing and photographing until the end.

"Those who endure will not let those difficulties knock their lives or attitudes off course for good"

While everyone is entitled to a period of adjustment during difficult times, those who endure will not let those difficulties knock their lives or attitudes off course for good. 

“If you dwell on the negative, you’re not going to do well,” warns Gary Small, former director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Longevity Centre. “But if you can see a challenge as something to rise to, it can be very gratifying to get to the other side.”

Elemental.medium.com (May 11, 2020), Copright © 2020 By medium

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