What has optimism got to do with life expectancy?

If you’re the kind of person who thinks every cloud has a silver lining, the odds of living a long life may be stacked in your favour, according to research.

What predicts long life? To answer the question, scientists have primarily explored biomedical areas such as genetics. But now, psychological attributes such as optimism are under the spotlight, based on research showing that more optimistic people have a lower risk of chronic illness and premature death.

When researchers from Boston University School of Medicine reviewed data from two long-term studies, they found the more optimistic middle-aged people were likely to live longer than those who were more pessimistic.

The study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analysed data from over 1400 men and 69700 women surveyed about their lifestyle habits, general health and optimism. Researchers tracked the men in the studies for thirty years and the women for ten years.

When the researchers compared the people based on their initial level of optimism, they found those with higher levels survived 11-15% longer than the least optimistic people. Remarkably, the most optimistic people were more likely to reach ‘exceptional longevity’ which generally refers to living to 85 and beyond.

You may think that optimistic people were healthier to begin with; however, the results remained even after accounting for age, education, chronic illness, depression, diet, exercise, alcohol use and frequency of GP visits.

Why?

The researchers speculate that optimistic people better regulate their emotions and behaviour, which may help them manage stress more effectively. For example, they reframe difficult situations as challenges rather than threats. Optimistic people are also more likely to exercise and not smoke, which helps increase life expectancy.

“Optimistic individuals tend to have goals and the confidence to reach them; thus, optimism may foster health-promoting habits and bolster resistance of unhealthy impulses through greater engagement with ones goals, more efficacious problem-solving, and adjustment of goals when they become unattainable,” wrote the authors.

Reference:

Lewina O. Lee, Peter James, Emily S. Zevon, Eric S. Kim, Claudia Trudel-Fitzgerald, Avron Spiro III, Francine Grodstein, and Laura D. Kubzansky. Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women. PNAS, 2019 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1900712116

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