Research Highlights - September 2019

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After decades of research, a new study from Harvard and Boston University links optimism and prolonged life.  Researchers have found that individuals with greater optimism are more likely to live longer and to achieve ‘exceptional longevity,’ which is defined as living at least 85 years.

Optimism refers to a general expectation that “good things will happen” or believing that “the future will be favorable because we can control important outcomes.”  Whereas research has identified many risk factors that increase the likelihood of diseases and premature death, much less is known about positive psychosocial factors that can promote healthy aging.

The study was based on survey measures to assess the level of optimism, as well as the overall health and health habits of individuals including diet, smoking and alcohol use.  A group of 69,000 women was followed for 10 years, while a smaller group of men was followed for 30 years.  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 percent longer lifespan, and had 50-70 percent greater odds of reaching 85 years old compared to the least optimistic groups.  The results were maintained after accounting for demographic factors such as age, educational attainment, chronic diseases, depression as well as also health-related behaviors, such as alcohol use, exercise, diet and primary care visits.

This study has strong public health relevance because it suggests that optimism is one psychosocial asset that has the potential to extend human lifespan.  Interestingly, optimism is an attribute that may be modifiable using relatively simple techniques or therapies.

It is unclear exactly how optimism helps people attain a longer life.  However, other research suggests that more optimistic people may be able to regulate emotions and behavior as well as bounce back from stressors and difficulties more effectively.

References

PNAS, September 10, 2019, “Optimism is Associated with Exceptional Longevity in 2 Epidemiologic Cohorts of Men and Women,” by Lewina O. Lee, et al.  © 2019 National...

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