Optimistic women tend to live longer, Harvard study finds

The most optimistic women tend to live longer, although it’s unclear exactly why, according to a new study from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

The researchers, who published their findings 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 that the association of optimism with longevity extends to various populations”.

“Much previous work has focused on deficits or risk factors that increase the risk of disease and premature death. Our results suggest that it is useful to focus on positive psychological factors, such as optimism, as possible new ways to promote longevity and healthy aging in diverse groups,” said Hayami Koga, PhD student and lead author of the study, in a statement. of 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 strategies. cognitive-behavioural”. And the study suggested that “optimism could be a new target for intervention to improve health.”

In a previous study, researchers looked primarily at white women and found similar results; they have expanded the pool of participants in the new study, the statement said.

The researchers noted several other studies that have looked at the links between optimism and men’s and women’s health.

The study looked at data and survey responses from 159,255 Women’s Health Initiative participants, which included postmenopausal women in the United States. The women enrolled between ages 50 and 79 from 1993 to 1998 and were followed up to age 26, according to the statement.

The most optimistic 25% of women were likely to have a 5.4% longer life expectancy – an average of about 4.4 years longer – and a 10% higher likelihood of living beyond 90 years than the least optimistic 25%, according to the study. said.

Lifestyle factors, such as regular exercise and a healthy diet, accounted for less than a quarter of the optimism-life expectancy association, the statement said.

The study indicated that there may be other ways in which optimism leads to a longer lifespan.

“Other possible pathways include neurobiological processes and psychosocial resources that promote health or mediate the adverse health impact of stressful experiences,” the study says.

“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 can also dampen psychological stress as well as physiological responses to that feeling of stress,” the study said.

The study also reported that “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, cardiologist and professor of medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, has studied the impact of optimism on heart healthsaid in an email that the Harvard study was “a very fine study by the best group in the field” and added “recent observations that indicate that optimism is associated with longer longevity than pessimism”.

“After appropriate adjustment for potential confounders, the study showed that the association of optimism with exceptional longevity was consistent across racial and ethnic groups, adding important additional evidence for the robustness of the optimism as a predictor of health,” Rozanski said.

“Since the study only looked at associations, this does not prove that optimism promotes longer longevity per se. This will require further study,” he noted.


Martin Finucane can be contacted at martin.finucane@globe.com.

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