Nelson Mandela's passing has drawn a global outpouring of emotion and celebration of his noble life's work as a human rights activist, visionary leader, and peaceful freedom fighter. But health experts say the work for which he will be admired and remembered for years to come may also have contributed to his long life.
The former South African president's positive attitude and work on behalf of his country may have helped buffer him from the physical stresses and extreme adversity he suffered throughout his life, according to a thoughtful tribute posted Friday on the LiveScience Website.
"The mind is a very wonderful, very intricate organ in the body that is designed to help you survive," said Vickie Mays, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Los Angeles. "Having a positive attitude under a negative circumstance, and having a belief that the experience is for a greater good, is sometimes very helpful in coping with what might be some detrimental physical outcomes."
The former South African leader, who helped end apartheid and served as the country's president between 1991 and 1997, died Thursday at the age of 95, after a long respiratory illness.
Despite experiencing significant adversity during his life, including 27 years in prison, Mandela managed to live a long and healthy life and maintained an unrelentingly positive outlook.
During his incarceration, he probably experienced malnutrition, including a deficiency of vitamin D, which has been linked to various health problems, including heart disease and diabetes, noted Mays. Mandela was also required to perform hard labor while in prison, which can take a significant physical and mental toll.
Yet despite these hardships, "we didn’t see him as being negative or talking about the years that he lost," Mays told LiveScience in an interview conducted before Mandela's death.
Of course, genetics and other factors, including lifestyle, are also factors that contribute to longevity (only about one in every 4,400 Americans live to age 100, according to 2010 U.S. census data).
A 2010 study of people ages 100 and over found, for instance, that a specific set of genetic markers can predict with a high degree of accuracy whether someone will live to a ripe old age. Another study of people living in Sicily found that those who lived past the age of 100 closely followed a Mediterranean diet, loaded with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in red meat and refined carbohydrates.
But scientists are also just beginning to understand the connection between psychological factors — including a positive outlook — and longevity.
A recent study by Purdue University found, for instance, that people over 70 years of age who engage in volunteer efforts tend to live longer lives. In addition to the psychological benefits that come from helping other people, the researchers said older adults who regularly volunteer are in better physical health than those just a few years younger — even when other factors (such as diet and exercise levels) are taken into account.
"One of the lessons to learn here is: Working for, with, and on behalf of others is a very noble, and maybe health-enriching experience," said Mays, noting Mother Teresa also had a long life, reaching age 87.
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