I found Chapter 14 to be one of the more interesting chapters, since it talked about how traumatic events and long-term stress impact people. This is something I have an interest in because epigenetics is SO cool. The fact that life experiences can literally change how our genes are expressed (through alterations in histone regulation) and affect biological systems as a result is mind-blowing to me. Chronic stress is a crucial part of this, since chronically elevated cortisol levels alter DNA methylation, which they hint at in the chapter. I would have predicted many of the findings that they discuss in chapter 14, such as the tendency of people with severe trauma to cope in unhealthier ways and the overall decrease in health and longevity. One of the things I’ve been reading up on recently is the alcohol anxiety cycle, something that ties in perfectly with post-traumatic mental health issues and substance abuse. Basically, alcohol not only hinders the sleep cycle but it also causes a massive spike in lactic acid during sleep, which has been found to significantly increase anxiety. Drinking alcohol then decreases anxiety (temporarily) and functions as a way of coping, but ends up exacerbating the anxiety in the long run. To me, this is a perfect example of how life events influence biological systems, which in turn affect mental health and physical health. It’s remarkable how much of an impact traumatic events and stress have on our overall health.
Chapter 15 summarizes many of their main findings about longevity. They found that social support and community involvement were critical, especially if those engagement facilitated a more active lifestyle. They found that conscientiousness, ambition, and persistence were far more important than cheerfulness or popularity. It was more helpful to be satisfied with a challenging and engaging career–even a stressful one–than it was to have a safe but unstimulating or unsuccessful career. Stress was highly relevant, though, and chronic levels of it seriously harmed individuals’ longevity. It was also not as important as most people think to be married, because the benefits of marriage depended a lot on the characteristics of the individuals and the support vs. stress that the marriage brought. Basically, an individual’s resilience, social engagement, and productivity are pertinent determinants of longevity, according to the authors. There is no easy way to living a long life, because it relies on a lifelong path of healthy inclinations and adaptability. Here’s hoping we can all manage that, I guess!
In the epilogue of “The Longevity Project,” the authors bring up some of the main lessons that can be learned from the Terman study and applied to public health. They mention how misguided health/longevity advice typically is, especially because many of their findings didn’t corroborate the common adages. (For example, ‘taking it easy’ and avoiding high stress occupations doesn’t end up being good advice; instead, doctors should recommend finding an occupation that is stimulating and rewarding, regardless if it happens to be high stress.) Oversimplified recommendations can really misguide people, and this is especially true regarding diet and exercise. For this reason, the authors say that lists and do/don’t guidelines may sometimes cause more harm than good.
In the end, personality, social engagement, and mental health are much more closely tied to physical wellbeing than current healthcare models would suggest. According to the authors, this indicates a clear need to reshape public health policy, perhaps towards encouraging community engagement and developing conscientious tendencies. I believe this to be incredibly true, as the biomedical model leaves much to be desired in terms of integrated care. If people are to be able to access not only long life but a high quality of life, a more comprehensive approach to developing resilience, emotional intelligence, and conscientiousness should be prioritized. My time working with neurodiverse children made me strongly believe that social skills and empathy curricula in early education are critical, in order to help all children develop good self regulation skills early on. As the Terman study showed, the ability to self-regulate and be resilient to life’s challenges, as well as the capacity to connect well with others, are all critical qualities for maintaining a healthy life path. There’s still a lot of work to be done in implementing such recommendations, but I do believe that they could make a positive difference.