“It’s in their genes” is a common refrain from scientists when asked what factors allow people to reach the age of 100 and beyond. Until now, research has focused on genetic variations that offer a physiological advantage like high levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
But in a new study, researchers have found that personality traits – like being outgoing, optimistic, easygoing and enjoying laughter, as well as staying engaged in activities – may also help to produce extreme longevity.
The findings are published in the journal Aging, and come from Einstein’s Longevity Genes Project. This studied 500 Ashkenazi Jews, aged from 95 to 122, and their 700 offspring. Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews were selected because they are genetically homogeneous – making it easier to spot genetic differences within the group.
Previous studies have shown that personality arises from underlying genetic mechanisms directly affecting health. This new study was aimed at detecting genetically-based personality characteristics by developing a measure called the Personality Outlook Profile Scale (POPS).
“When I started working with centenarians, I thought we’d find they survived so long in part because they were mean and ornery,” said Nir Barzilai, director of Einstein’s Institute for Aging Research. “But when we assessed the personalities … we found qualities that clearly reflect a positive attitude towards life. Most were outgoing, optimistic and easygoing. They considered laughter an important part of life and had a large social network. They expressed emotions openly rather than bottling them up.”
In addition, the centenarians had lower scores for displaying neurotic personality and higher scores for being conscientious, compared with a representative sample of the U.S. population.
“Some evidence indicates that personality can change between the ages of 70 and 100, so we don’t know whether our centenarians have maintained their personality traits across their entire lifespans,” continued Dr. Barzilai. “Nevertheless, our findings suggest that centenarians share particular personality traits and genetically-based aspects of personality may play an important role in achieving both good health and exceptional longevity.”