What The Founding Fathers Can Teach Us About Longevity

07/04/2011 04:57 pm ET | Updated Sep 03, 2011

The first four U.S. presidents -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison -- plus Benjamin Franklin -- lived an average of more than 82 years, and they did so without the benefit of modern medical care. To the contrary, George Washington, who became seriously ill after a day's horseback ride through sleet and snow, was treated with bleedings, emetics and enemas, and then succumbed. Two hundred years later, American presidents again tend to live very long lives, with Reagan and Ford reaching 93, and Carter and Bush senior still alive at 86 and 87.

The Founding Fathers, like the presidents of today, lived highly stressful lives that were full of hard work. They led lives of rebellion, war and the harshest political strife, as well as lives full of many personal tragedies. They faced the constant pressures of knowing that the well-being and survival of countless others were in their hands and depended upon their successes. Yet they thrived and lived long. How could this be?

In a small sample of individuals, it is impossible to know for sure, but the core of the founders' secret emerged in a 80-year study of the paths to robust health and long life. For the past 20 years, I and my colleagues have been following and analyzing the lives of more than 1,500 bright Americans who were first studied as children back in the 1920s. When they were about ten years old, these children were described and judged by their parents and teachers in astounding detail. They were then followed every five to ten years throughout their lives, regularly describing their personalities, their activities, and their accomplishments and failures. With extensive statistical analyses and numerous validation studies, The Longevity Project isolated the important individual influences on long life; and the findings turned out to fit the founding fathers in amazing correspondence.

The characteristic most basic to long life was persistence. We health researchers call it "conscientiousness" but it often comes down to planning, prudence and persistence, persistence, persistence. Whether you like it or not, a key element to becoming a national leader, both then and now, is a powerful willingness to stick to it. Such individuals do not shun responsibility, avoid adversity, or duck hard work. They do not chill out and they do not take it easy.

One study does not prove the assertion, even when it is an eight-decade study, but more and more research is now confirming the evidence that emerged in The Longevity Project. For example, some presidents in our history were slackers, but yes, there is even a published scientific study showing a positive correlation between conscientiousness and longevity for the 32 American presidents who could be so studied.

As you might guess, some of it is will power. In fact, Adams and Jefferson kept themselves alive until July 4th, as did the fifth president, James Monroe (who also served in the Continental Congress). If Madison (who died June 28th) had managed to hold on for six more days, the first four post-Washington presidents would have all died on the Fourth of July. But it is also much more than will power.

We have found that individuals who persevere and live a meaningful, productive life are the ones most likely to live a long and healthy life: the persistence and involvement naturally bring a whole host of healthy behaviors, psychological reactions, and social relationships. Founders are thrivers and survivors.

Howard S. Friedman is Distinguished Professor at the University of California in Riverside. His latest book is The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study. NY: Hudson Street Press.
© 2011 Howard S. Friedman.