Personality and Coping among Centenarians

By Martin, Peter | Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Personality and Coping among Centenarians


Martin, Peter, Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics


Even though centenarians often have significant functional, physical, or cognitive impairments, many continue to amaze family members, friends, and researchers alike. Several individual attributes have been used to portray exceptional survivorship traits of long-lived individuals: Centenarians must be hardy individuals with a positive attitude; they surely must be likeable persons who have always done everything perfectly right and who have learned throughout life how to cope with adversity. If translated into personality characteristics, centenarians would have a very favorable personality profile.

The purpose of this review is to shed light on individual personality characteristics of centenarians and to separate myth from reality. A secondary purpose is to address the question to what extent personality characteristics help to explain optimal adjustment in very late life. Before examining the available evidence concerning personality and survivorship, I provide a brief theoretical and conceptual overview of the personality literature. After that, I will highlight narrative reports about the personal characteristics of and life events experienced by centenarians. Third, I will focus on biographical information of wellknown centenarians. Fourth, I will summarize findings concerning personality traits of centenarians. Fifth, I will address specific personality states and coping behaviors in centenarians. Finally, I will highlight to what extent personality traits and coping can help survivors into very late life to adjust to changes in very late life. I will conclude with recommendations for future research.

THEORETICAL AND CONCEPTUAL OVERVIEW

Personality has often been described as relatively stable when seen from the rank-order stability perspective (Costa & McCrae, 1994). As Mroczek, Spiro, and Griffin (2006) pointed out, however, there are also individual differences in stability. A number of studies using growth-curve modeling techniques have recently demonstrated that neuroticism appears to decline with age (Mroczek & Spiro, 2003; Small, Hertzog, Hultsch, & Dixon, 2003), and agreeableness and conscientiousness appear to increase over time (Helson, Jones, & Kwan, 2002; Small et al., 2003). Short-term fluctuations over weeks have also been investigated, and these fluctuations may explain why some people survive and others do not (Eizenman, Nesselroade, Featherman, & Rowe, 1997).

It is difficult to study long-term personality changes or trajectories in centenarians. Longitudinal studies into the 10th and 11th decades of life are not feasible because of the high mortality rate in very late life. Even though there has been a considerable increase in the number of centenarians over the past 50 years, becoming a centenarian is still a relatively rare occasion. Research on this oldest age group therefore must rely on retrospective information or on cross-sectional and short-term longitudinal studies.

What is the relative importance of personality characteristics in longevity models? One of the earliest conceptual models, derived from findings of the Bonn Longitudinal Study of Aging, placed personality in the center of the model, directly predicting longevity, but also as a mediator that was dependent on genetic and social-ecological factors (Lehr, 1982; Thomae, 1976). The Georgia Centenarian Study's general conceptual model included personality as an individual characteristic that would directly predict adaptational characteristics, mental and physical health, nutritional behaviors, and life satisfaction (Poon et al., 1992). None of these models were exclusively developed for the study of centenarians. Instead, these were models of survivorship and adaptation for older adults. Instead of testing the fit of longevity models, centenarian studies typically begin with the narrative description of centenarians' characteristics.

NARRATIVE DESCRIPTIONS

Early studies on centenarians usually contain some reference to individual or anecdotal impressions researchers have gained from the study of centenarians. …

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