Children of parents who live to be 100 years old appear likely to follow in Mom's and Dad’s footsteps, and researchers are starting to think that may have as much to do with nurture as it does with nature.
Research indicates that sons and daughters of centenarians may learn certain personality traits from their parents that are associated with healthy aging and longevity.
Researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine used questionnaires to assess measures of certain personality traits for 246 unrelated offspring of centenarians.
The average age of the 125 women and 121 men was 75 and they were studied for their levels of neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness, which are thought to be the five major components of personality.
The results, published in the April 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found that both male and female offspring of centenarians scored in the low range for neuroticism, or emotional stability in the face of stress, and in the high range for extraversion, which can be defined as the habit of obtaining gratification from things outside the self.
“They are aging very well relative to others in their age group and we also know those who are low in neuroticism tend to manage stress very well,” says Tom Perls, MD, the senior author of this study and director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University Medical Center. “Certainly decreasing the impact stress has on you probably does help with longevity,” he adds.
“The first issue we find with the centenarians is it doesn’t seem to be the amount of stress that’s important. It’s how you manage the stress," says Dr. Perls. "Did you let the stress manage you or did you manage it? Stress is a really important age accelerator and can relate to other illnesses. People who are low in neuroticism tend to not dwell on the stress and not internalize the stress but to let it go.”
Women in the study also scored high in agreeableness although men were in the normal range for that trait. Both sexes were in the normal range for conscientiousness and openness.
Previous research has indicated that longevity runs in families and has shown that children of centenarians often have delayed onset of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension.
But scientists do not know if children of centenarians are inheriting these traits or just mirroring what they see in their parents.
“To say whether or not this is learned or inherited or genetic, I don’t know,” Dr. Perls says. “I think that’s a very interesting scientific question we’d like to pursue.”
If you do not have these personality traits, scientists say there are still things you can do to decrease the impact stress has on you to promote health aging.
“It’s a little difficult to change your personality. On the other hand, there are things you can do that have the same effect, “ Dr. Perls explains. He says that includes managing your stress through exercise, praying, spending time with children or meditating. He adds that the benefit of extraversion appears to be that it helps individuals establish friendships and social networks that can be social safety nets when times get tough.