Women who are more optimistic tend to live longer, though it’s not clear exactly why, according to new research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Researchers, who published their results earlier this month in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, also found that the trend “was generally evident across racial and ethnic groups, suggesting the association of optimism with longevity extends to diverse populations.”
“A lot of previous work has focused on deficits or risk factors that increase the risks for diseases and premature death. Our findings suggest that there’s value to focusing on positive psychological factors, like optimism, as possible new ways of promoting longevity and healthy aging across diverse groups,” Hayami Koga, a doctoral candidate who is the lead author of the study, said in a statement from the university.
The study noted that being optimistic is partly an inherited trait, but “experimental research has demonstrated that optimism is modifiable with accessible methods that actively target optimism such as writing exercises and cognitive-behavioral strategies.” And the study suggested that “optimism may be a novel target for intervention to improve health.”
In a previous study, the researchers had looked at mostly white women and found similar results; they broadened the participant pool in the new study, the statement said.
The study looked at data and survey responses from 159,255 participants in the Women’s Health Initiative, which included postmenopausal women in the United States. The women enrolled at ages 50 to 79 from 1993 to 1998 and were followed for up to 26 years, the statement said.
The 25 percent of women who were most optimistic were likely to have a 5.4 percent longer lifespan — or an average of about 4.4 years more — and a 10 percent greater likelihood of living beyond 90 than the 25 percent who were the least optimistic, the study said.
Lifestyle factors, such as regular exercise and healthy eating, accounted for less than a quarter of the optimism-lifespan association, the statement said.
The study said there might be other ways that optimism leads to a longer life lifespan.
“Other possible pathways include neurobiological processes and psychosocial resources that promote health or buffer the harmful health impact of stressful experiences,” the study said..
“For example, studies have investigated how psychological stress and distress can trigger a host of physiological changes (including autonomic nervous system activation, immune system activation, neuroendocrine changes, platelet hypercoagulability, and oxidative stress) and positive psychological factors may buffer psychological stress as well as the physiologic reactions to this sense of stress,” the study said..
The study also said “optimists appear to have greater social support, use problem-solving and planning strategies to minimize health risks, and are better able to regulate emotions and behavior.”
Dr. Alan Rozanski, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York who has studied the impact of optimism on heart health, said in an e-mail that the Harvard study was “a very nice study by the best group in the field” and added to “recent observations which indicate that optimism is associated with longer longevity than pessimism.”
“After appropriate adjustment for potential confounders, the study showed the association of optimism with exceptional longevity was consistent among racial and ethnic groups, adding important further evidence as to the robustness of optimism as a health predictor,” said Rozanski.
“Since the study only examined associations, it does not prove that optimism promotes longer longevity per se. That will require further study,” he noted.
Martin Finucane can be reached at email@example.com.