Australians currently have the second highest average life expectancy in the world, behind Japan.


The average Australian woman now lives for 83.7 years compared to 79 years for men, according to the latest report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
At one point or another we’ve all obsessed about our health and whether we eat enough broccoli, drink more coffee than we should or stress too much. However, these things may not impact on how long we live, according to a new groundbreaking eight-decade study.
Dr Leslie Martin is a professor of physiology in the US and a co-author of The Longevity Project (Scribe Publications, $32.95). She has spent the last 20 years working with colleague Dr Howard Friedman to research the reasons some people live longer than others – and the results may surprise you.
Dr Martin says although nutrition and fitness are important, the biggest impact on longevity comes from relationships, personality and work.

Relationships for life
A study released in 2008 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed evidence that marriage improved both health and longevity. It found married couples are more likely to look after each other’s health and therefore increase their lifespan.
Dr Martin says although this trend has appeared in many short-term studies, when her research team examined the data over eight decades they discovered a different picture – particularly when it comes to women.
“One of the things we found was that although being in a steady, healthy marriage was good for your health, the women who were steadily single also did really well,” she says. “For participants who were divorced, men were able to increase their odds of long life if they got remarried, but for women it didn’t really matter.”
It seems stable relationships are the key, whether or not there’s a marriage involved. Dr Martin says the women who on average lived the longest had a range of strong, healthy relationships.
“I would say the biggest distinguishing marker we found for women was their social ties,” she says. “Many women who lived long lives had good family relationships, good solid friendships and got involved in their community.”

Personality quirks
How can your personality type impact on how long you live? A 2010 study from the University of New South Wales of Australians who had reached 100 years of age showed being open to change was a common trait among centenarians.
Australian Centenarian Study professor Robyn Richmond says the study – which involved 188 Australians who reached the age of 100 – had some interesting findings.
“About 20 to 30 per cent of the likelihood of living to 100 is because of your genes,” she says. “But that leaves 70 to 80 per cent up to environmental factors. The major finding of this study is the impact of personality.”
Dr Martin says The Longevity Project showed some personality traits were more conducive to a longer life than others. While you may think an optimistic, cheery person is paving the way to breaking the 100-year barrier, that may not be the case.
“The other thing that was really surprising to us was that kids who showed optimism and cheerfulness had much shorter lives. That’s not at all what we expected from the short term studies we had seen,” Dr Martin says. “We found those on the high end of this personality scale evaluated risk differently – they tended to smoke and drink more and have more risky hobbies.”
Dr Martin says her findings also showed conscientiousness as a key indicator for a long life. If you’re a prudent, persistent and well-organised person, give yourself a clap on the back and start planning for your retirement.
“Kids and adults who were prudent and responsible and stuck to things they started, the study showed that boded well for their longevity,” Dr Martin says.
Studious managerial types aren’t the only people who should be celebrating. In an odd twist, Dr Martin says highly-strung and neurotic personalities also showed a longer lifespan. She says these kinds of people are more likely to take care of themselves physically and take fewer risks.

Working wonders
Has anyone ever told you that you work too hard? Or that workaholics are destined for an early grave? Apparently the opposite may in fact be true.
“That was a really interesting finding,” Dr Martin says. “I work pretty hard and I have people telling me all the time I am going to work myself to death. We actually found the people who worked the hardest lived long lives.”
So rather than packing your bags and heading for a life of leisure in Byron Bay, make sure your career is demanding but rewarding. Dr Martin says the key is to ensure you are working in an area that is important to you, you feel satisfaction with your work and you enjoy some kind of success.