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.”

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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.

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  • So true! I have had many ‘negative ‘ happenings in my long life
    And many ‘positive happenings. I choose to enjoy the positive ones and observe the negative ones as lessons I need to learn.
    Both types return time after time! Some ‘lessons’ are more difficult for me to learn! I am 89! I need to hurry and learn those lessons! LOL

  • I have a family member who more or less died of discouragement … it makes sense to me that optimists may be able to pull themselves through difficult treatments and solve problems that would defeat a discouraged person.

    However, isn’t it also the case that the causality could be running the other way? That people with more robust metabolisms, nervous systems or other components might get optimism as a side effect? Some mechanisms that run in this direction are, exercise-induced endorphin highs; endorphins released when you believe that your pain will go away shortly; how great you feel after recovering from a workout.

  • Without any doubt this would be a significant , welcome, delightful, impressive and rewarding feature of benefits to humanity. Most certainly being positive . hopeful take comfort with the belief , faith and confidence within one soul that better days will be ahead for many of us . there off . The problem or problems is and are that the situations all depend on how deep . extensive and critical are the positions that confronts us . more to come .Trevor .Merchant . Wednesday . August . 28. 2019 at 4.16 p.m .daylight savings time . New York City

  • Perhaps this is viewed totally backwards.

    Perhaps those who are less burdened with chronic physical problems and illnesses, are able to be more optimistic.
    Maybe that’s why they live longer!

    People with chronic, debilitating health problems may find it impossible to be optimistic. Those problems may be the cause of a shortened life span…not their lack of ‘optimism’.

    Considering the cost of living with chronic, multiple diseases, I imagine it would be extremely difficult to be optimistic, especially when there isn’t money to pay for medications, transportation to clinic visits and medical procedures.

    Decisions about paying for food, electricity, car payments vs medications or PT for example,
    certainly impacts one’s optimism. The financial burden of illness, struggles of just getting to multiple clinic visits and the fear of losing one’s job due to absences would cause stress (a killer on its own).

    Compare a fairly healthy person with a person suffering from chronic pain or someone wondering if their cancer may return, or struggling with incapacities from their stroke…it’s easy to see who would be more optimistic.

    So being ‘Optimistic’ may not be the factor contributing to longevity, but rather the result of a life free from illness or accident which robs one of optimism.

    • This study used time series data. The researchers had access to baseline data, which would show whether members were optimistic before they had chronic diseases. I only have access to the abstract, but any competent researchers would use the baseline values. These type of data allow researchers to separate the optimism effect from any chronic disease effect, and your argument seems to be refuted by the data.

  • It’s interesting that they lived “significantly longer” after accounting for some variables. But how much longer? 3 months? 3 years?

    • It’s there is the article. Those with a better attitude lived an average of 14.9% longer than those with a poorer attitude.

  • I grew up depressed and lonely, but my parents kept funding me at university, until I finally found something of value: Psychiatry.
    The descriptions of anxiety, depression, etc, struck home, as did Freud’s efforts to understand them scientifically.
    This led to a 50 year career as a psychotherapist, and to the discovery that even psychotic patients, who failed to improve with many years of drugs, could become well with insight oriented psychotherapy.
    At 91 I’m still trying to inform the world that this route is preferable to drugs for most people, and that seriously damaged psychiatric patients usually have trauma dating from infancy.
    Darwin had to remind us that we are evolved animals, and I’ve discovered that we’ve forgotten that we are mammals with very protracted infancies. We are born prematurely in order to get our big heads through the birth canal.

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