Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ten Health Myths

We have been told that the key to longevity involves obsessing over what we eat, how much we stress, and how fast we run. Based on the most extensive study of longevity ever conducted, The Longevity Project exposes what really impacts our lifespan-including friends, family, personality, and work.

Gathering new information and using modern statistics to study participants across eight decades, Dr. Howard S. Friedman and Dr. Leslie R. Martin bust myths about achieving health and long life.

Here are ten of the most treacherous dead-end myths that they have uncovered in their 20 years of work on this study:

1. "Take it easy, don't work so hard, and you will stay healthier." MYTH! Our results clearly showed that those who lived the longest were highly motivated, worked the hardest, steadily advanced in their careers, and achieved most career success.

2. "Get married and you will live longer." MYTH! For married men who were well-suited to marriage and stayed in a good one, marriage was health protective. But for men who divorced and remained divorced (or who remarried and divorced again), their risk of dying skyrocketed. Women who stayed single and women who left a poor marriage (through divorce) usually thrived. Women were able to rely much more on their friends, while men usually depended on their wives for their social life.

3. "Cheer up, go to comedy clubs, and stay happy because thinking happy thoughts reduces stress and leads to long life." MYTH! Although happier people are healthier and healthier people are happier, our tracking of people for many years revealed that happiness is not the root cause of good health. Those who thrived did not live in a land of laugh therapy, self-esteem clinics, parties, and indulgent parents and peers. Instead, the thrivers traveled pathways of meaningful, productive living that made them happy, healthy, and wise.

4. "If you are a wimpy type who likes gardening, walking, and cooking, get out there to the marathons and the ski slopes because vigorous activity is the secret to how long you will live." MYTH! Although we did confirm that a sustained level of physical activity is healthy, most individuals did not manage to stay physically active as they reached middle age. So we say that if you don't like jogging, don't jog. Instead, begin doing things that you really enjoy and can keep up, whether it is tending to your garden, or bowling with buddies. Develop those patterns, whatever they are, that get you up and out of your chair.

5. "If you are the kind of person who worries about your health, get some therapy and learn how to relax because worrying is very bad for your health," MYTH! Especially for men, those who were worriers in young adulthood went on to later be less likely to die before their time. If the worrying individuals were also conscientious and dependable, things got even better. Such worriers may be especially motivated to take care of themselves. Rather than fretting themselves to death, they are concerned enough to keep themselves alive. And throughout life, those who realistically evaluated risks fared better than the happy-go-lucky.

6. "If you believe that you are very loved and cared for, then you are definitely on the road to good health and long life." MYTH! Although social relations and good ties to others were very important to staying healthy, feeling cared for wasn't crucial. Rather, the people who had lots of other people in their lives -- friends, family, or co-workers -- stayed healthier, and this effect was increased if they volunteered and got involved in helping others. Helping and loving others is more important than feeling helped and loved oneself.

7. "If you have been working at the same job for many, many years, retire as soon as you can, move somewhere nice, and play more golf so you will stay healthier and live longer." MYTH! The people who stayed involved with something worthwhile as they aged tended to stay healthier, whether it was full-time work, part-time work, or volunteering. Surprisingly, they did not work themselves to death; they worked themselves to life!

8. "If your child is very serious and steadfast, encourage the child to be more spontaneous, cheery, and to have more fun." MYTH! We found very clearly that it was the prudent, dependable, truthful, humble and persistent children who thrived throughout the years. And they led fulfilled, interesting lives. The cheery, fun-seeking, risk-taking folks often died before their time.

9. "Religious people live longer, so be sure not to miss religious services if you want to stay healthy; prayer relieves stress." MYTH! We discovered that religious people, especially religious women, do tend to live longer, but not because of religious services. They stayed healthier partly because they have healthier habits, but it was also the case that those involved with a religious congregation had many more social ties and much more health-protective community involvement.

10. "Give your child a big head start in school because children with a good academic lead go farther, thrive, and live longer." MYTH! The children who started formal schooling (first grade) at an early age (such as age five) were at higher risk of dying early. They lost the unstructured playtime that psychologists know to be so important to healthy development. And they had more trouble relating to their classmates, out of synch and often feeling the need to prove themselves.

OVERALL MYTH BUSTED: The old saw that says "The best of Men cannot suspend their Fate; The Good die early, and the Bad die late." MYTH!

The Longevity Project repeatedly revealed that it was the honest, dependable, hard-working, helpful, and socially-involved individuals who thrived. Generally speaking, it is the Good ones who can actually help shape their fate; the Bad die early, and the GOOD DO GREAT!

Howard S. Friedman is currently Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Leslie R. Martin is Professor of Psychology at La Sierra University.

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