EUROPEAN PAPERS ON THE NEW WELFARE

Longevity: a Right to Be Achieved

4. Stressors and longevity

According to some writers the relationship between age and stress is describable as a U curve whose extremes correspond to young adults (30-40 years) and to the very old (<85 years) (11). Young adults live a more stressful life from the socioeconomic and work point of view, they are subject to a greater number of positive and negative acutely stressful events (marriages, divorces, births, etc.) which tend to lessen with age until retirement. On the other hand, the young old are subject to increasing stress because distressing events regarding friends and family increase in number, susceptibility to age-related and age dependent illnesses increases (12) and consequently disability does too, which is considered the most important cause of chronic stress at every age. Consequently at the extreme of this parabola we find the centenarians who, although presenting a low comorbidity, present a higher level of disability caused by the high prevalence of conditions linked to age-related deterioration. In fact our sample presented an auditory deficit in 54.1% of the cases, sight deficit in 41.3%, incontinence in 45.9%, fracture of the femur in 23.9% and slowness of movement in 20.4% (13). Evaluation of self sufficiency according to the Activity of Daily Living (ADL) scale (14) showed that only 26.6% of the subjects were self sufficient in the 6 variables taken into account (taking a bath, feeding, dressing, getting from bed to a chair, use of hygiene facilities, continence). Moreover the average score on Instrumental Activity of Daily Living (IADL) (15) proved to be very low (1.4) with 40% of the subjects being dependent in all the functional activities of everyday life (using the telephone, managing money, making purchases, preparing meals, doing the laundry, housework, taking medicines, using means of transport). The contradictory findings of a high level of stress due to dependence against a low level of anxiety and depression in the long-living can be explained by a favourable temperament trait.
Once ascertained that centenarians are subject to chronic stress linked to the sense of impotence because of the progressive loss of autonomy, their good general psychic state can be ascribed to a good temperament structure and to a good capacity for adjusting to adverse events in life.

5. Temperament traits of centenarians

Stereotypes suggest that people become more rigid, irritable, introvert, passive, cautious, frustrated in older age — changes which would seem to increase the risk of depression with age. For some time now these clichés have been rebutted, and the stability over time of differences in personality traits from adult age and beyond has now been demonstrated: for example, people who were extrovert at 30 years remain so even when they grow old. On the basis of this argument we think that it is possible to investigate whether among centenarians there is a predominant personality or character trait which can have favoured a good response to stressors.
The problem of the description of personality has been one of the most debated arguments of psychology over the last 10 years. Some studies seem to indicate that different systems can be reduced to 5 fundamental aspects, the so-called big five: extroversion, friendliness, conscientiousness, openness to experience and emotive stability (16). The people who obtain high scores in the extroversion aspect tend to describe themselves as very energetic, dynamic, active and loquacious. This temperament of people commonly defined as sunny and positive could presuppose an optimistic view of life, by means of which stressors would be experienced as positive stimuli.
People who obtain lower scores in this area, instead, tend to describe themselves as lacking in dynamism and activity, subdued and taciturn and tend to experience as stressful any unexpected event in their lives. The high percentage of extrovert centenarians pushes us to seriously consider the temperament substratum as another predictive element of longevity together with genetic predisposition and life style.


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