Friday, October 20, 2006

Boston University study: Less stress leads to a longer life

NIH funds BU professors' research with centenarians
Lauren Magnuson

Not sweating the small stuff can now lead to a longer life, according to a 12-year Boston University study that found people who live more than 100 years tend to handle stressful situations better than others.

"That ability to shed stress is an important factor to longevity," BU professor Tom Perls said. "How much of a factor -- we don't know."

With funding from the National Institutes of Health, Perls began the New England Centenarian Study in 1994 and has since included subjects from around the world. These subjects, who must now be 105 or older to qualify for the study if they are women, answer questionnaires over the telephone and give researchers a blood sample.

Perls said centenarians as a whole scored low in "neuroticism," meaning they rarely dwell on stressful situations and experience little anxiety.

He additionally began an online life-expectancy calculator composed of 40 questions. Of the 30,000 respondents so far, only "60 percent of respondents felt that they were dealing okay with stress," Perls said. Seven to 10 percent of respondents said stress had a negative impact on their lives.

BU psychology professor Todd Farchione said the ability to shed stress, while partly a result of genetics, can also be learned.

"Both a nonspecific genetic predisposition in combination with environmental influences influence the way we respond to stress," he said.

Proper stress management has health benefits beyond longer life, according to Perls, because untamed stress "predisposes people to depression and anxiety . . . and can increase peoples' risk for stroke and heart disease."

He said the amount of stress in people's lives is not as important as the way people manage it. Farchione said the best method is for people to "accept their emotional response and to respond in a way that's going to be most adaptive and most consistent with the life they want to live."

Perls encouraged discovering "what activities are stressing you out, and if they're not avoidable, what can you do to decrease the impact of that stress." He suggested finding new activities that ease stress, including faith, exercise or "even learning to take a deep breath."

Sarah Bottrell, who will be 102-years-old Oct. 22, said she joined the study two years ago on a friend's recommendation. She said sensibility and a sense of humor are her stress strategies.

"My greatest stress was when my mother had to have both legs amputated because of diabetes," the Marquette, Mich. resident said. "So many times we laughed about things that we knew were not laughable, but it made us feel better."

Bottrell said she lived an average life and does not smoke or drink alcohol. A music enthusiast, she said she maintains an active involvement with her church choir and attends many concerts.

Perls' life-expectancy calculator can be found at

original article