Contact: Eric Kim, Ph.D./ Lewina Lee, Ph.D.
For Release: March 10, 2019
Are sunny optimists deluded Pollyannas bound to be blindsided by the (inevitable) big-rig truck headed their way just beyond the next curve on life’s road?
That’s a popular stereotype, but two large studies out today add to growing evidence that expecting the best can increase your odds of living to a healthy old age. The reports will be presented at the American Psychosomatic Society meeting in Louisville, KY.
In the first report, more than 30,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study were followed over eight years, starting when they were in their early 50s to early 70s. None of them had major diseases at the outset. They all answered questionnaires at the beginning designed to measure where they fell on the optimism-pessimism spectrum. Then, eight years later, researchers asked an array of questions about daily functioning and chronic diseases. For example, had they experienced heart disease, cancer, stroke or diabetes? Could they bathe and dress themselves, run, lift heavy objects? Did they have memory impairment?
Contrasting women who eight years earlier had scored in the top one-quarter for optimism with die-hard pessimists in the bottom quarter, the optimists were 23% more likely to be healthy at older ages. “People might be surprised that psychological factors have any association with healthy function in later years. This is a pretty substantial difference just for optimism,” says senior author Eric Kim, Ph.D., research associate at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Kim controlled for many factors that could affect healthy functioning, such as income, education, marital status, depression and health behaviors. Still, optimism remained independently linked to a greater likelihood for healthy old age.
It makes sense, adds Kim, because there’s a lot of evidence that optimists tend to reframe difficult situations into more manageable challenges, and they accept what cannot be changed rather than marinating in misery. “This probably lowers stress,” Kim says. And there’s preliminary evidence that optimists have lower levels of inflammation, which has been linked to chronic diseases.
In addition to having a better chance to live a healthy older age, optimists also may win the extreme longevity marathon: The more optimistic they are to start, the better their odds of living beyond 85 years old, suggests a 30-year follow-up on 1,429 men in the Normative Aging Study. Most of the men were in their 50s and 60s when the study started, says lead author Lewina Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.
At the start, tests measured how the men explained the events in their life. Optimists tend to identify themselves as the cause of good things and see positive events as likely to recur; pessimists, on the other hand, view good experiences as transient flukes, out of their control and unlikely to recur. Since the men were older to start, 71% of them died over the 30-year study. But optimists overall lived the longest—and the more optimistic, the longer their lifespan, says Lee. She also controlled for a number of health, demographic and mental health factors that affect survival.
“When we encounter life challenges, optimists tend to feel confident that they can take action to overcome them and achieve their goals. Pessimists might be more likely to give up and consider life as more stressful overall,” she suggests. Lower stress levels reduce inflammation, and inflammation has been linked to chronic diseases that may end in death.
About one-quarter of the differences between people in the optimism/pessimism continuum can be chalked up to genetics, twin studies have shown. But that leaves a lot that might be changed if pessimists want to take a more positive approach, Kim notes. Meditation and cognitive therapies are among the tools that can increase optimism for motivated people, according to preliminary studies on the issue, says Kim.
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1943, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that organizes an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”