Humans have been searching for centuries for the secret to living longer, but the answer may be as simple as maintaining a positive state of mind. A new study published Monday by researchers at Boston University adds to the evidence that optimistic men and women may live longer than those who are pessimistic.
Researchers found that people who scored higher on an optimism assessment were more likely to live past the age of 85. Those with higher optimism levels at the start of the study were more likely to have advanced degrees and be physically active, and less likely to have health conditions like diabetes or depression. However, when researchers accounted for these variables, they still found that optimism was associated with people living significantly longer.
Often, researchers focus on finding risk factors the heighten the likelihood of falling ill. But Lewina Lee, the lead researcher on the new study and an assistant professor of psychiatry at BU School of Medicine, said, “These findings reinforce the value of looking at psychosocial assets and not just deficits in overall health and health outcomes.”
The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved long-term follow up of women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study and men in the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study. The women have been followed since 1976, and in 2004 they completed a six-question optimism assessment. Their survival was tracked until 2014. The men have been followed since 1961, and in 1986 they completed a baseline assessment with 263 true or false statements about their experiences and their outlook on life. Survival outcomes were tracked through 2016.
A report from the Brookings Institution in May 2018 reached a similar conclusion. “We were looking at people born in the 20s and 30s who lived beyond 2015,” explained Carol Graham, a Brookings senior fellow. Lee’s “findings fit with the findings we have found. Based on U.S. data for similar-aged people, those who are optimistic in their early and mid lives live longer.”
Prior studies have also reported that optimism is associated with a reduction of premature death or decreased rates of medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, but the link between optimism and long life expectancy is relatively new and the implications are far-reaching.
The authors of the new study said they believe that optimism is a modifiable attribute and could be a potential target to promote healthy aging. Graham suggested that communities could boost optimism by increasing access to the arts or providing volunteer opportunities, which might help create a sense of purpose and foster social connections.
While the association is clear, scientists still do not fully understand why optimism might lead to longevity. It may simply be that people who are optimistic are more likely to invest in their health and avoid risky health behaviors. But there may be more biology than what it seems on the surface.
Bruce McEwen, who heads the Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University, said that experiences shape the brain and body. Inflammation and stress can affect the brain and other organs and cause disease or aging processes. Attributes such as being goal-oriented, optimistic, and socially engaged are all interrelated and might be able to combat higher stress and inflammation levels.
While the findings are promising, these optimism studies should be interpreted with caution. In Lee’s research, the two groups of men and women that were studied were fairly narrow and included mostly white people of higher socioeconomic status. It is difficult to determine how generalizable these findings are. “Translating into individual lives is a more complicated story,” McEwan said.
The findings provide a launching point for future research, Lee said. She hopes to investigate potential pathways between optimism and longevity and look for explanations for these findings.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the optimism assessments for women and men in the BU study.