Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More
The other day I read about a 107-year-old man who still went to the office every day to run his family business. His brother just turned 105, and his sister recently died at the age of 109. This man was still as sharp as a tack and had never been in the hospital.
Is it a coincidence that there is longevity throughout his family? I think not, and neither do scientists who study genetics. In fact, this man’s family was found to carry a rare gene associated with living to extreme old age.
We often think of the physical commonalities among family members who live a long time, particularly their genetic make-ups. This allows us to speculate whether longevity may be passed down to future generations. But what about the role of personality in longevity? Are there commonalities there as well that can help us understand better the chances of living to a very old age?
That’s exactly what a diverse group of scientists (they represent England, the Netherlands, and the United States) investigated in a recent study published in a leading gerontology journal. In the study, data was analyzed from the Health and Retirement Study, one of the largest longitudinal studies of older people ever conducted. Specifically, the researchers were interested in the relationship between parental longevity and the personality characteristics of those parents’ children.
Personality is a rich area of psychological study. One of the more common theories of personality structure focuses on five factors:
When the researchers analyzed the age to which parents lived and the personality profiles of their offspring, they found some interesting patterns:
- Male children of long-living fathers and mothers were more likely to score higher on extraversion and openness compared to men whose parents did not live as long.
- Female children of long-living fathers and mothers showed no clear patterns in their personality profiles compared to women whose parents did not live as long.
I’m still pondering why personality differences may exist for male offspring but not for female offspring. Regardless, what I found glaringly absent from the study was the comparison of the parents’ personality profiles to those of their offspring. If longer living parents and their children showed similarities among the five personality factors listed above, we may have more convincing evidence that genes are only part of the longevity story.
Antoniou, E. E., Dutta, A., Langa, K. M., Melzer, D., & Llewellyn, D. (2013). Personality profile of the children of long-lived parents. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Advance Access, doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbt003