In 1921, Lewis Terman, a Stanford University psychologist who invented the Stanford-Binet IQ test, began gathering information on children who achieved an intelligence quotient of at least 135. He planned to follow them throughout their lives in an effort to determine the factors that contributed to intellectual accomplishment. • He eventually included more than 1,500 "gifted children" (he coined the term) and followed them until his death in 1956. Since then Stanford University has continued gathering information on the "Termites," as participants came to be known, and will continue to do so until the last one dies. (Only about two dozen are still alive.) • Terman hoped his "Genetic Studies of Genius" would reveal the best way to educate exceptionally bright children, but the massive number of details collected about the participants has provided clues to the ingredients that contribute to a long life, according to Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin, psychology professors, who have written The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study (Hudson Street Press). • Although they found no single secret to long life, certain behaviors certainly seem to contribute to health, happiness and longevity, according to Martin. Some detrimental factors, such as having parents who divorce, are beyond a person's control, but choices made in adulthood and even in old age can have a powerful effect, as she emphasized in a telephone interview from her home in Riverside, Calif. Tom Valeo, Times correspondent
We can't choose our parents, and we can't alter the past, so by midlife can people still make choices that affect longevity?
We say that personality is not set, but by the time you get into your later years, you're probably not going to change your personality much. What you can do, however, is maintain active social engagement.
One thing we found over and over was that those who had more frequent interactions with people tended to do better. It could be co-workers; it could be friends, neighbors or family members. The frequency of contact, whether by phone or in person, was really important.
In addition to the frequency of interaction, we found that if some of those interactions involve helping others, providing for the needs of others, that was additionally beneficial.
These things are relatively easy for most people to do. If you've let social interactions drop off, make an effort to pick up the phone and schedule a visit, or join a club.
Doesn't social interaction also help stave off dementia?
Yes, but social interaction is also a great way to improve quality of life. Also, having a few good friends with whom you interact regularly seems to be just as good as having a larger number of friends.
It's the number of interactions that seems to matter rather than the actual number of friends you have.
What about diet and exercise? Are they really that important for the elderly?
We saw clear evidence that they are, even if changes in diet and exercise start at midlife or later.
Do something to be physically active. Get out of your chair. People think they need to go to the gym or take exercise classes, but we found that's not the case.
If you don't like jogging or aerobics, it's just as good to walk, or garden, or engage in some other hobby — golf, woodworking.
If you like it, you're more likely to continue doing it. And it's the regularity that matters, even if the activities are not super rigorous.
Can exercise become counterproductive for older people in the sense of harming health rather than promoting it?
If you're doing something painful, even if you like it, you might want to switch to something that doesn't cause damage.
But I don't think it would ever be good advice to tell someone to be completely sedentary.
And what about diet?
We didn't have in this study a lot of good information about diet except in early childhood. For much of their lives they didn't eat prepackaged, processed foods.
It seems clear they ate fairly healthfully in the sense of no fast foods, but there's probably a wide range.
They weren't vegans or vegetarians — they didn't follow a particular diet. They just made food and ate.
Did you find a lot of obesity in the group?
We had measures of body mass index, although it was based on self-reported height and weight, and we know from other studies that people tend to over-report their height and under-report their weight.
Still, this sample had very little obesity in it.
Has your work caused you to change your life in any way?
It has, primarily in terms of my own thinking.
One of the findings I found startling was that working really hard seemed to benefit people.
My parents always say, 'You're working too hard; you're stressing yourself out; you're going to work yourself into an early grave.' But we found quite the opposite — the longest-lived people worked long hours, and had quite stressful jobs, but they also found meaning in their work and were passionate about it. They considered their work important.
I was surprised and happy to see those findings because they solidified what I already felt intuitively to be true, which is that I thrive on the hard work and stress of my job, and the data bear that out.
Also, I have always valued my friends and family, but I value them even more now that I understand how vital those social connections are.
Tom Valeo writes frequently about health matters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.