August 9, 2023
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Cheer up. A brighter future lies ahead. The more optimistic you are, the longer you will live and the healthier you will be. That is not only good advice. It is now a scientific fact.
A new research study that included more than 160,000 women finds that no matter your race or ethnicity and whatever your lifestyle, a positive outlook on the future is the best guarantee that you will survive well beyond the average age of death in the United States, which is hovering around 81 years.
The study, which was led by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, describes the likelihood of living longer as “exceptional” among women who are optimistic. Exceptional is defined as living to age 90 or older.
Many previous studies have largely been negative in the sense that they concentrated on factors that increase the chances and risks of people contracting diseases, says Hayami Koga, a doctoral candidate at the school and lead author of the study. This study, however, suggests that there is a value to focusing on psychological factors that are positive as new ways of promoting healthy aging and longevity in women across a variety of ethnic groups.
We tend to focus on the negative risk factors affecting our health, Koga adds. It also is important to consider the positive resources, such as optimism, that may be beneficial for our health.
In addition, early studies on an optimistic outlook on life have looked at mostly white populations, Koga explains, but this study included women from across racial and ethnic groups. The reason they were included is that some other groups have higher mortality rates than white populations. Also, research to help inform health policy is limited among those groups.
The study’s findings, however, were true across all groups. As a result, the study’s results might reframe how people view the decisions that have an impact on their health, she adds.
The women in the study were enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative. They enrolled when they were aged from 50 to 79 from 1993 to 1998. They were followed for as long as 26 years.
Among the measures used to determine the participants’ degree of optimism was the six-item Life Orientation Test Revised. In the test, participants reported the degree to which they agreed with each item on a scale ranging from 1 to 5.
Here’s a more detailed look at some of the findings in the study:
• The quarter who were the most optimistic were likely to enjoy a lifespan that was 5.4% longer. They had a 10% greater likelihood of living beyond age 90 compared with the quarter who were the least optimistic.
• The trends hold true even when chronic conditions, depression, and demographics—such as education, income, marital status, health insurance, and occupation— are taken into account. Optimism might be beneficial beyond simply signaling the absence of depression, the researchers note.
• Lifestyle, such as healthy eating and regular exercise, might have an impact on the results. They account for about 25% of the association between optimism and longevity, the researchers note.
• The impact of optimism might be similar to the benefits provided by exercise.
• People who are optimistic generally have greater social support. They also use planning and problem-solving strategies to lessen health risks and so are able to regulate behavior and emotions more effectively. These attributes, which result from their optimistic approach, might also help to contribute to a longer life.
• Other possible pathways to a longer life include neurobiological processes and pscyhosocial resources that promote health or counteract the harmful impact of stress on a person’s health. Overall, however, the contribution of these factors was modest, the researchers note.
The study appears in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society