"Three Characteristics of a Longer Life" By Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President and CEO

Three Characteristics of a Longer Life

February 1, 2011 - What does it take to live longer?

Being a better student, having a higher socioeconomic status, and being positive all have a significant impact on your longevity. In fact, all three characteristics are interrelated.

  • How we feel influences how well we do in school.
  • Subsequently, how we do in school contributes to our socioeconomic status.
  • Our socioeconomic level influences our attitude.
  • And ultimately, these attributes contribute to our health, which in turn influences our life expectancy.

Interestingly, life expectancy has been increasing for everyone in the United States for the past few decades, according to a report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). However, there is a growing disparity in life expectancy between those with more or less education, and between those with high or low incomes. The same trends have been noted in Europe.

(1) Educational Levels.

Recent articles, including a study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, indicate that “even among those who each has 12 years of education, the person who performed better [in school] had better health.” One theory is that students who do well have better critical thinking skills and improved cognitive function. These people probably have learned how to learn better and therefore can cope with stress and other noxious influences. The net result is more longevity.

This seems logical and now the studies have confirmed the theory. The University of Wisconsin studied 10,000 people who were graduated from the Wisconsin high schools in 1957. Decades later, the top quartile was healthier than the bottom quartile, and had half the chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

It's long been known that people with more years of education live longer. Those with more schooling on average also have much higher lifelong earnings and net worth, and are less likely to be unemployed.

Having a better job allows one to live in a better, safer neighborhood, eat a healthier diet, obtain regular medical care, and join a gym. Higher educated people tend to have jobs with less physical wear and fewer occupational hazards. Educated people are more physically active and less likely to smoke and be obese.

(2) Socioeconomic Status.

There is a close relationship between socioeconomic status and mortality.

Differences in rates of mortality for cancer and heart disease have been documented; poor people don't do as well. Having limited access to healthcare is an unfortunate consequence of living at a lower economic level. For one thing, health insurance may be unaffordable. Also, sadly, smokers are more common among those folks who can least afford the $100,000+ cumulative cost of a two pack per day habit for 30 years. The likelihood of heart and lung disease adds to the lower life span.

Obesity has increased in the less-educated and less well-off. Many lower-cost foods are more likely to add unnecessary calories. Obesity contributes to other problems which can further lower an individual's socioeconomic status. Healthy lifestyles are more expensive than bad habits.

So-called “macho men”—who eat and drink what they want, when they want, without discipline—die younger of preventable illness. The theory, according to a professor at Columbia University, says these men are less likely to look after their health. In fact, they are 50% less likely to seek medical care compared to other men.

This is a vicious cycle which increases costs for Medicare and Social Security. It's a societal challenge that has been noted by the CBO and may be a motivating influence to change the tax structure to keep both services viable.

(3) Attitude.

Being positive adds 7.5 years to your life, according to a study of 660 people reported in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

When you are young, having positive perceptions about aging can have a tremendous effect on your life expectancy. There are many theories but no absolute proof why this is the case. One belief is that having a positive attitude gives a person a stronger will to live. Such folks have fewer sick days, are more engaged, and easier to be around.

Having a positive attitude is also a stress protector. Looking on the bright side of things, smiling rather than frowning, finding the silver lining rather than a black cloud, all reduce stress and have a beneficial effect on health.

Optimism actually increases the cortisone levels in your body, which helps protect against stress. Cortisone also gives a feeling of well-being and a boost to the immune system, which is the body's protective defense against infection.

The Mayo Clinic monitored a large cross-section of people from Minnesota, Arizona and Florida for five years and found that optimists (people with positive attitudes and thinking patterns) outlive pessimists (those who have a negative outlook).

Positive thinkers have decreased stress, fewer colds and viral infections, reduced risk of heart disease, and an overall sense of well-being and good health. People with positive attitudes on life experience less wear and tear on their body and organ systems.

“We need to laugh more and seek stress-reducing humor in our everyday lives,” says psychotherapist Enda Junkins. “In today's stressful world, we need to laugh much more.”

Positive attitudes give you greater success because you are more likely to be proactive, ambitious, and competent. These attributes facilitate better planning, higher goal setting, and more significant accomplishments.

A good attitude also improves self-esteem. A positive attitude helps recovery when missteps and mistakes occur. Finding your inner strengths helps you through stressful times.

The bottom line is that optimistic people believe in themselves and their abilities.

This “can do” attitude leads to higher educational attainment and, I believe, higher socioeconomic status.

Thus all three attributes—attitude, education, and socioeconomic status—are interrelated and contribute to longevity.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.