MONDAY, April 20, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Want to live to 100 or beyond? Be very outgoing and know how to manage your stress.
A new study found that those were the traits found in the children of people who lived to 100, 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," said Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study 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, 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, Perls said.
The offspring of centenarians scored lower than the norms on neuroticism, the study found. Perls said 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, Perls said. 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," Perls said. 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 an older 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," Perls said. "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," he said of the study's findings on the longevity benefits of managing stress and forming friendships.
"We are talking about the positive aspects of life," Milner said. He said that his grandmother, who is 98, has the traits Perls found that are associated with longevity. When she became a widow, Milner said, she stayed positive and remained open to new experiences -- which for her included becoming a hockey fan -- and making new friends.
When he gives lectures to people at retirement communities on active aging, "you walk in and see who is engaged in life," he said. "If you are engaged, you are less negative, more open, and more agreeable. That's why you are engaged."
And, he said, "people will engage with you" if you have those traits.
But what to do if you aren't naturally outgoing and aren't good at handling stress?
Remember, Perls said, that you can get better at each. People can make a point of trying to be more outgoing, he said. 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," he said. "Exercise, enjoy time with the family."
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on healthy aging.