Optimists may live longer than pessimists

Author: Adrian O'Dowd

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Optimism could boost a person’s chance of living to the age of 85 or older by more than 50%, suggests a US study* published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

Existing research has identified many risk factors that increase the likelihood of diseases and premature death, but less is known about whether or not positive psychosocial factors can promote healthy aging.

Researchers from Boston University’s School of Medicine, the National Center for PTSD at VA Boston Healthcare System, and Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health carried out a study based on decades of research.

Optimism in this study, referred to a general expectation that good things will happen, or believing that the future will be favourable.

The study was based on survey data collected from 69,744 women and 1,429 men. Both groups completed survey questions to assess their level of optimism, as well as their overall health and habits, such as diet, smoking, and alcohol use. The women were followed for 10 years (2004 to 2014), the men for 30 years (1986 to 2016).

When individuals were compared based on their initial levels of optimism, the researchers found that the most optimistic men and women demonstrated, on average, an 11% to 15% longer life span, and had 50% to 70% greater odds of reaching 85 years of age compared to the least optimistic groups.

The results were the same even after taking into account age, demographic factors such as educational attainment, chronic diseases, and depression, and health behaviours, such as alcohol use, exercise, diet, and primary care visits.

The study’s first and corresponding author, Lewina Lee, an assistant professor of psychiatry and a clinical research psychologist at the National Center for PTSD at VA Boston, said: “This study has strong public health relevance because it suggests that optimism is one such psychosocial asset that has the potential to extend the human life span.

“Interestingly, optimism may be modifiable using relatively simple techniques or therapies.”

However, it was still unclear as to how optimism helped people attain longer life, although the researchers said more optimistic people tend to have healthier habits, such as being more likely to engage in more exercise and less likely to smoke, which could extend life span.

Study senior co-author Laura Kubzansky of Harvard, said: “Other research suggests that more optimistic people may be able to regulate emotions and behaviour as well as bounce back from stressors and difficulties more effectively.”

Francine Grodstein of Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, another study senior co-author, added: “Research on the reason why optimism matters so much remains to be done, but the link between optimism and health is becoming more evident.”


*Lee LO, James P, Zevon ES, et al. Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1900712116

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