In Italy's mountainous Cilento region on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, it is not uncommon for villagers to live well into their 90s and sometimes beyond 100. Researchers from the University of Rome La Sapienza and University of California, San Diego, recently set out to discovery why, and in January they published their findings in International Psychogeriatrics.
While most longevity studies primarily analyze diets or genetics, for this study, the researchers focused on participants' character traits.
"There is no one way to get to 90 or 100, and I don't think it requires a radical change in personality," author Dilip V. Jeste, senior associate dean for the Center of Healthy Aging at UC San Diego School of Medicine, told TIME. "But this shows that there are certain attributes that are very important, including resilience, strong social support and engagement and having confidence in yourself."
Jeste and his colleagues observed these traits in the study's 29 participants between the ages of 90 and 101, who they interviewed to gather a sense of their personal histories, beliefs and the trials they've had to overcome throughout their lives.
The researchers also used quantitative evaluations to scale their physical and mental health, and they asked younger family members to describe their impressions of their older relatives' personalities.
"The group's love of their land is a common theme and gives them a purpose in life. Most of them are still working in their homes and on the land. They think, 'This is my life and I'm not going to give it up,'" said Anna Scelzo of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse in Chiavarese, Italy, in a press release.
The insight echoes points that others have made, such as Shigeaki Hinohara, a Japanese physician and longevity expert who died last year at age 105. His suggestion for those who want to live longer was, Don't retire, and, if you must, wait as long as possible.
The 96-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel recently made a similar point when she declared, "For me, retirement is a fate worse than death."
Researchers would probably be unsurprised by the examples of Hinohara and Apfel, since they fit the larger pattern. "We also found that this group tended to be domineering, stubborn and needed a sense of control, which can be a desirable trait as they are true to their convictions and care less about what others think," Scelzo said, adding that they demonstrated a remarkable degree of grit and adaptability.
"I have fought all my life and I am always ready for changes," said one man, who had lost his wife of 70 years just a month before. "I think changes bring life and give chances to grow."
"I am always thinking for the best," said another study participant. "There is always a solution in life. This is what my father has taught me: to always face difficulties and hope for the best."
When the researchers compared the participants to their younger relatives between the ages of 51 and 75, they were surprised to find that, although the older generation had worse physical health, they scored higher on measures of self-confidence, decision-making and mental well-being, meaning they were generally less anxious and depressed.
"This paradox of aging supports the notion that well-being and wisdom increase with aging even though physical health is failing," said Jeste.
Plus, as he told TIME, "it shows that getting older is not all gloom and doom."
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