The Coastal Post - April, 1997

Curiosity In Elderly May Lead To Longer Life

Heightened curiosity can add years to one's life, increasing chances of longer life by 30%, according to a recent study funded by the National Institute of Aging.

Past research has shown curiosity to be an important part of overall psychological health, the researchers noted, yet "this is the first report of a positive association with survival in older people."

Commenting on the study's findings was Dr. David Larson, epidemiologist at the National Institute for Healthcare Research. "Past research has shown that a spiritual outlook can lengthen the lives of the elderly. This study indicates that another positive outlook-curiosity-is connected to longer life as well."

The study tested curiosity levels among nearly 1,200 white men averaging age 65 who were also examined to determine potential health risk factors including blood pressure, cholesterol level, and whether they had a history of smoking, cancer, depression, or stroke. They were followed for the next five years to see if curiosity levels were linked with who lived longer.

The men who showed higher levels of curiosity at the time of first testing were 30% more likely to live beyond those five years than the men with merely average curiosity-after taking the other health risks into account. A related study of more than 1,000 women found similar results.

Why would higher levels of curiosity relate to better survival in older adults? Researchers Gary Swan and Dorit Carmelli at SRI International in Menlo Park, commented that older adults encounter many challenges that curiosity may help them face.

Higher levels of curiosity may represent an improved ability to respond to challenges, such as limited mobility or changes in living arrangements, "with active coping through new experiences, new friends, new ways to solve problems... The adaptive value of exploratory, problem-solving behavior may play an important role in living longer."

In children, curiosity leads to effective intellectual and emotional development, the researchers said. Interestingly, this child-like trait continues to remain significant in lengthening lives of older adults.

Conversely, shrinking curiosity may be one of the earliest signs of abnormal aging of the central nervous system, an added health risk and a possible contributor to the shortened life span, the researchers added. A longer follow-up of the men and women in the current study will help further resolve this issue, they noted.

-Gary Swan and Dorit Carmelli, "Curiosity and Mortality in Aging Adults: A Five-Year Follow-up of the Western Collaborative Study Group," Psychology and Aging II (3:449-553), 1996.