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THE STRANGEST SPECIES

COMMITMENTS : So, Good Guys Do Finish Last After All

August 21, 1995|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The good die early, the bad die late," wrote poet Daniel Defoe in 1696. Nearly 300 years later, Billy Joel howled the same thing in his song "Only the Good Die Young."

But a groundbreaking longevity study, spanning 70 years, debunks that cherished adage. Instead, it found that nice, conscientious people tend to live longer than the insolent and brutish.

"Common wisdom says that a selfish, self-indulgent boor prospers by stepping on others," says Howard Friedman of UC Riverside, one of seven researchers conducting the study. "In the rush toward death, the encouraging news may be that good guys finish last."

Friedman used a study that began in 1921 to track 1,528 children--mostly white, all well-educated and of varied socioeconomic backgrounds. They were interviewed every five to 10 years by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman, who was investigating genetic theories of intelligence. Terman died in 1956, but others continued to collect data.

Half of Terman's subjects have died. The survivors are about 80 years old. The researchers gathered death certificates and used Terman's data to examine the personality traits, social environments and behaviors that might lead to longer lives.

Conscientiousness, the researchers say, appears to have influenced behavior that leads to longer life: following health recommendations, caring for one's physical body, and leading less stressful, more satisfying lives.

"We think these nice kids just went down these tracks in life that were healthier," Friedman says. "They were less likely to drink and smoke to excess. They had more socially dependable lives. If they married, they stayed married; if they [had not] married, they stayed unmarried. They were well educated . . . weren't egotistical and found niches that suited their personalities."

Described by their elementary teachers as "prudent," "truthful," "conscientious" and "free from vanity," these children grew up to be 30% less likely to die in any given year than their peers as a whole. Unimpulsive, dependable and rule followers, these people seemed to be protected against injury and death from heart disease and cancer.

But insouciant, impudent children (check your pulse, grown-ups who once were mouthy kids) and "cheerful" children (Pollyannas) were more likely to die of injury, sample drugs, drink alcohol, be antisocial and, as an adult, have unstable marriage patterns--though these risks do not fully explain their increased risk of earlier death.

"It's not that all cheerful kids are at risk of early death, but the ones who are overly optimistic," says Deborah L. Wingard, a professor of epidemiology at UC San Diego, another of the seven researchers, who added that conscientious children are usually more soulful than cheerful. "They thought they were invulnerable, which led to 'Oh, I can smoke, it won't hurt me' or 'I can ride that dune buggy.' "

So, looks like nice guys really do finish last. Cautious folks, who probably always pay their bills on time, never park in the red zone, don't drive over the speed limit or compete in bungee-diving contests.

The researchers are now studying the impact of diet and exercise habits on longevity. Want to bet that the folks who live longer did not engage in the kind of freezer-to-couch power walking (for frozen Snickers binges) inherent to the 24-hour television marathon of "Twilight Zone" reruns?

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