"Don't work so hard." "Don't take everything so seriously." "Get out of the rat race." "Retire." "Play golf." "Just take it easy."
Good advice for avoiding an early death? Not even close, according to The Longevity Project, a book by Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin. Friedman and Martin say working hard throughout your life at something you are truly committed to is actually one of the keys to living longer.
Their findings, based on an eight-decade research project, have implications for you not only as an individual with a hectic, stressful and ever-changing job, but also as a professional dedicated to improving health care in your community.
In 1921, a Stanford psychologist named Lewis Terman began studying about 1,500 boys and girls around 11 years of age who were identified by their teachers as the brightest kids in their classes. Among other things, Terman wanted to know if he could pinpoint certain characteristics that lead to adult success.
After his death in 1956, other researchers carried on Terman's studies and for the past 20 years, Friedman and Martin have followed up on the people in the studies, even tracking down death certificates when necessary. They wanted to know "why some people thrive well into old age while others fall ill and die prematurely." Disturbingly, they found "that many health recommendations are ill-advised or simply wrong."
Last year, I wrote a column for Hospitals & Health Networks in which I kiddingly lamented the rise of the term "wellness" to describe all those things for which I thought we already had a perfectly fine word: health. Wellness, to my ear, was annoyingly New Agey and superfluous.
In their book, Friedman and Martin are inclined to agree, but point out that "health" has become strongly associated with disease—and treating disease—which too often involves an over-reliance on medications, technology and specialists. We needed to come up with another term to incorporate the concept of keeping people well and focusing on the whole person, including lifestyle and attitudinal factors. Thus, "wellness."
The Longevity Project lists a number of common myths about what contributes to extending life. For instance, the accepted wisdom that taking it easy, playing it safe and avoiding stress are the keys to long life are simply untrue, the authors found. Among the longest-lived subjects in the Terman project were people who held demanding positions, but viewed their careers as their life's work, and were engaged in and satisfied by it. That, by the way, describes a lot of hospital executives, physicians, nurses and other folks I know who work in hospitals.
On the other hand, few health care professionals I've met can be called "overly optimistic." As it turns out, that's a plus when it comes to longevity. Overly optimistic people—in contrast to the neurotics and worriers among us—underestimate risks to their health and "approach career goals in a lackadaisical fashion." Not good if you want to live long and well, and make a meaningful difference in the world while you're at it.
There's hardly space in this column to convey all the points Friedman and Martin make that are relevant to you as an individual and as a health care professional. Their insights from the Terman project, with its focus on real people across a large stretch of the 20th century, are fascinating. And they plan to extend the research, including into how the health care field can better contribute to longer lives.
If this quote from The Longevity Project doesn't quite summarize their findings, it comes close:
"Having a large social network, engaging in physical activities that naturally draw you in, giving back to the community, enjoying and thriving in your career, and nurturing a healthy marriage or close friendships can do more than add many years to your life. Together they represent the living with purpose that comes with working hard, reaching out to others and bouncing back from difficult times."
For more information, including how to buy the book, click here.