Book review: “The Longevity Project”

“Come on, you [men], do you want to live forever?!?”

— Marine Corps First Sergeant Daly, Belleau Wood
(slightly edited for a family-friendly blog)

One of the challenges of financial independence is “longevity risk”, where you ensure that your assets will last as long as you do. Unfortunately when we stop working for a paycheck (even at the “traditional” age of 65) most of us have no idea how long our assets will have to last. If you stop working in your 40s then the actuarial odds are pretty good that you or your spouse will be around for another five decades. Even the Internal Revenue Service has noticed the issue and revised the IRS required minimum distribution tables to reflect longer lifespans (and lower RMDs). Financially, the only way to hedge longevity risk is through annuities like a military retirement, Social Security, or an insurance contract.

But longevity is not just financial probabilities and statistics. If you’re going to minimize your financial longevity risk, how can you also maximize your longevity? For example, Dominguita Velasco turned 112 years old on Mother’s Day. That’s not a typo: one hundred and twelve years old, yet she’s barely in the top 30 centenarians whose ages have been authenticated. They’re humanity’s fastest-growing age group.

So what’s Ms. Velasco’s longevity secret? “Stay happy.”

The researchers of “The Longevity Project” have nearly a century of data, but it fails to confirm Ms. Velasco’s insightful analysis.

The book cover of "The Longevity Project" on what promotes long lifespans.

How long will you live?

The data came from a study that began in the early 1920s when a Stanford psychologist interviewed over 1500 elementary school children.  Dr. Terman was looking for bright kids whose intellectual potential might be identified by its early signs and tracked to its fulfillment. (Terman invented the Stanford-Binet IQ test, which is still in use nearly a century later.) He checked back with his group every decade or so until the early 1950s, and then followup interviews were carried on by his successors. When “The Longevity Project” authors began their study, they spent a tremendous amount of time and effort tracking down all the death certificates of the participants. By verifying their subject’s ages and causes of death, they completed the collection of one of the 20th century’s largest and most detailed databases of human health and longevity.

The children profiled by Dr. Terman were born between 1900-1925. A few of them lived into their 90s and as of 2003 over 200 of them were still alive. They dealt with the Great Depression, a world war, and the Cold War. They led America’s 20th-century expansion in population and technology, and they represented a typical segment of its middle class. A few found fame & fortune and some were well-known in their professions. They also died at all ages and of almost every cause, so the researchers could test many theories about the factors affecting their longevity.

Several books have been published on the study. “The Longevity Project” represents 20 years of analysis by Doctors Friedman & Martin, assisted by over 20 graduate students and other PhD collaborators in various research specialties. They explored the data from many different aspects and then compared their results to other (shorter-term) studies in physiology, psychiatry, sociology, mental health, and aging. They were even able to compare some of their data to the Grant Study, another longitudinal database of 268 Harvard undergraduates that continued for 75 years.

By today’s standards, Terman’s original study was flawed. The chosen children were recommended by their teachers and selected for IQ results. They were overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and from California. They were also a product of their times, when women had limited opportunities while these particular men were offered exceptional favor for their gender and race. Dr. Terman interfered in the study by writing recommendation letters for some of his subjects and even exerted his influence to get others admitted to Stanford. Years later, however, he concluded that IQ did not correlate to achievement. After modern researchers accounted for the study’s flaws, they agreed with him.

Friedman & Martin looked at longevity, not potential or achievement. They debunked some surprising conventional wisdom of their own. Based on their data, all of these myths appear to be false:

  • The good die young.
  • The bad die late.
  • Married couples live longer.
  • You’ll live longer if you take it easy and don’t work so hard.
  • Happy thoughts reduce stress for a long life (contrary to Ms. Velasco et al).
  • Worrying is bad for your health.
  • Don’t be so serious. Be more spontaneous and have more fun.
  • Religious people live longer.
  • Vigorous exercise is better for longevity than gardening or walking.
  • You’ll live longer if you believe that you’re loved and cared for.
  • You’ll live longer if you retire as early as possible.

So what works? Surprisingly, the words “prudence” and “persistence”. Children who Terman had assessed as “conscientious” were highly correlated with longevity. Modern society is all too familiar with the Darwin Award for a lack of conscientiousness (“Eh, brah, hol’ ma Primo an’ watch dis!”) and more conscientiousness also promotes longevity. It not only leads to healthier habits but to better friendships, improved workplaces, and happier marriages.

What’s wrong with thinking happy thoughts? It turns out to be a two-edged sword. There are positive health aspects to being cheerful, but it can also result in a happy-go-lucky disregard for health. Centenarians like Ms. Velasco are optimistic, but the problem with studying this age group is that darn near all of them are smiling. There’s no comparison group (the ultimate “survivor bias”). Happiness seems to be a result of longevity, not a cause of it. It’s more likely that they’re happy only because they survived so long– not because lifelong happiness makes them healthier. Ironically, some studies determined that worrying and neurotic behavior were better survival tactics than maintaining a cheery outlook.

Since this is a blog about financial independence and retirement, I’ll skip ahead to the end of the list. Does early retirement really reduce your longevity? If that’s the case then I’d better type faster.

The most notorious claim relating early retirement to early demise is the Boeing Study. Although it’s been debunked, it regularly resurfaces and resonates across the Internet. Other studies purporting to prove the same conclusion do not distinguish between early retirement for health reasons versus early retirement for financial independence. Once the data is corrected for that difference, there’s no correlation between early retirement and shorter lifespans.

There’s also no correlation between early retirement and longer lifespans! In fact the data seems to conclude that working longer leads to extended life. “The Longevity Project” authors analyzed this hypothesis against their data and determined that the actual workplace correlations to longevity are conscientiousness, prudence, persistence, and productivity. If you satisfy those factors through working for a paycheck then you’ll live a long life. If you satisfy those same factors by reaching financial independence and retiring early, while still maintaining your personal productivity, then it also turns out that you’ll live a long life. If you retire early due to poor health, or if you retire early to vegetate on the couch all day (perhaps sipping margaritas and nibbling bonbons), then your longevity is also dramatically reduced.

By the way, the definition of “retirement productivity” is up to you. In the workplace, it’s usually measured by happy customers, meeting deadlines, and cashing paychecks. If you’re financially independent then it’s whatever you find entertaining and fulfilling. That could be training for an Ironman triathlon, working on your house & garden, painting portraits, or simply reading & writing. If you’re active and happy then you’re probably healthier and more likely to live longer.

If you’re curious about marriage and religion, you’ll have to read the book. (It’s been out for two years so you’ll probably find a copy at your local public library.) The important longevity factors turn out to be the quality of those two institutions for their participants, not merely their membership.

Despite the flaws of the original Terman research, “The Longevity Project” is still the world’s best collection of lifespan data. Regardless of why it was started, it offers insights on what led to long life in the 20th century. Death certificates are objective evidence of the cause of death, and a tremendous amount of data was collected on these people as they lived their lives. The analyses conducted by Drs. Friedman & Martin are peer-reviewed, statistically rigorous, and frequently confirmed by other sources.

Better yet, applying their recommendations won’t require any radical lifestyle changes. We can pick & choose from their results and implement the concepts which suit our confirmation bias. Just by reading the book and reflecting on our own lifestyles, the placebo effect can practically guarantee an improvement in our own longevity.

One day you, too, might be offering the media your own analysis of how you managed to stay alive for so long. And when you do, you’ll be happy about it!

Related articles:
During retirement: Healthy lifestyle
How much will military veterans leave on the table?
Asset allocation considerations for a military pension (part 2 of 3)
“Present value” estimate of a military pension
Retirement planning: “Just tell me what to do!”
More SBP details
Military long term care insurance
Interview: what’s wrong with long-term care insurance?
23andMe genetic testing

About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
This entry was posted in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Book review: “The Longevity Project”

  1. Jay says:

    “It’s paradoxical, that the idea of living a long life appeals to everyone, but the idea of getting old doesn’t appeal to anyone.”
    – Andy Rooney

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Thanks, Jay– Andy Rooney is everyone’s favorite curmudgeon… and I noticed that he couldn’t spell retirement!

  2. Thanks for the interesting summary and analysis Doug. I’m happy to have a few of these retirement myths debunked now in my own mind. I know conscientiousness, prudence, persistence, and productivity lead to financial independence, so it’s nice to know they might also lead to a long life to enjoy it!

    I liked your take on “retirement productivity” too. So many people assume that retirement is some kind of permanent vacation, whereas I’m finding the opposite to be true. Retirement has the potential to be the most engaged and creative phase of your life.

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Thanks, Darrow, I was surprised to see some of those myths debunked too– especially the “stay happy” one.

      I still struggle to explain to (employed) people how fun, fulfilling, occasionally overscheduled, and exhausting retirement can be– only this time it’s my own fault. You’d think that we bloggers would have figured out a better explanation by now…

  3. GubMints says:

    Always had my doubts about the Boeing Study, with everyone keeling over the day after they receive their Gold Watch…

    • Doug Nordman says:

      That study got a lot of attention on in the mid-2000s… I was glad to finally read the real story.

  4. RichUncle EL says:

    I knew I could one day find an actual study to correlate retirement with longevity, I have to read it now. Thanks for the post!

  5. All up, I’m definitely happier without the job. Whether that helps me live longer or not, I’m not certain, but I certainly enjoy the days I do have a whole lot more :)

    • Doug Nordman says:

      Thanks, you and me both!

      I think the biggest study challenge is separating those who take ER for health/stress reasons (imposed on them) and those who take ER as a personal goal (achieved by them). Then all we have to do is follow those people for 80 years and see whether ER is worth the “risk”.

      Or we could hedge our bets, reach ER as soon as possible, and spend a few years personally researching both options… so far so good!

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