For those who contemplate retirement as decades filled with leisure and relaxation, The Longevity Project serves as a warning. As Friedman says, "fun can be overrated" and stress can be unfairly maligned. Many study participants who lived vigorously into old age had highly stressful jobs. Physicist Norris Bradbury, who died at age 88, succeeded J. Robert Oppenheimer as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, overseeing the transition of the U.S. atomic weapons research lab from World War II into the Cold War.
Friedman and Martin say it's the kind of stress that matters. The bright boys selected for the study who ended up having low-status jobs—streetcar conductor, baker, porter—and whose careers did not match their early promise were far more likely to die before age 60 than their higher status counterparts. Success, even in challenging jobs with demanding hours and responsibility, is a tonic. (Ever notice that orchestra conductors and dictators tend to go on forever?)
Provocative as the book's findings are, it would have been helpful if the authors had assumed their readers were almost as bright as the Termites, and provided the statistical evidence for their claims. While they cite other studies that buttress their findings, it would have strengthened the book to be able to see what percentages of Termites back up the researchers conclusions.
The only real lesson in another book about the years at the end of life, Never Say Die by Susan Jacoby, is that you'd better hope there aren't too many of them. Jacoby offers a dystopian vision of what awaits those who make it to a vigorous three-score and 10, and then just keep going. Her book is a rambling jeremiad, warning that once into deep old age, no matter that the old person did everything right to get there, what awaits is decline, dependency, and dementia.
"In real old age, as opposed to fantasyland, most people who live beyond their mid-eighties can expect a period of extended frailty, illness, and disability before they die," she writes. She cautions that neither satisfying work, healthful habits, enduring love, nor a good attitude can protect from brittle bones, a mind clogged with damaged neurons, or a bank account inadequate to one's needs.
Reading Jacoby's denture-rattling slap of a book back to back with Friedman and Martin's did raise the issue of whether longevity is an ultimate good. Friedman and Martin write, "Although our studies look at health, aging, happiness, and other signs of well-being, we always ask who lives longest. Why? … [L]ength of life is the single best measure of health."
But as we look around the world at rapidly aging societies, such as Japan, Jacoby's warning reverberates. Japan was once a vital economic giant that was going to overtake the West. Now, nothing seems to sum up its stagnancy so much as the portraits of its thwarted young people and its ever-expanding legion of retirees, who require an ever-growing portion of the country's dwindling economic resources. Then there are the articles about how Japanese toy manufacturers, alarmed about the declining number of children and burgeoning population of elderly, market talking dolls to old women who may never have grandchildren of their own.
What Never Say Die and The Longevity Project agree on is the salutary effect of work. Jacoby writes, "Being forced to work longer, or to think about developing new skills to augment an inadequate retirement income, might turn out to be an invigorating kick in the pants for boomers rather than a life sentence at hard labor." Friedman and Martin write that an analysis of the activities and accomplishments of study participants during the 1980s, when most were in their 70s, and following what happened over the next two decades was dramatic. "[T]he continually productive men and women lived much longer than their more laid-back comrades. … It was not the happiest or the most relaxed older participants who lived the longest. It was those who were most engaged in pursuing their goals."