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Longevity Booster? Try Optimism

Study finds looking on the bright side of life may pay dividends

woman sitting with her dog on the beach
Alistair Berg

If you want to give yourself a better shot at extending your life span, put your mind to it. New research published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society has found a greater likelihood of living longer among optimists.

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The study, led by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, included nearly 160,000 women. It found that across racial and ethnic groups, women with higher levels of optimism had a greater chance of living beyond age 90 than those whose outlook on life was less rosy.

“A lot of previous work has focused on deficits or risk factors that increase the risks for diseases and premature death. Our findings suggest that there’s value to focusing on positive psychological factors, like optimism, as possible new ways of promoting longevity and healthy aging across diverse groups,” lead author Hayami Koga, a Ph.D. candidate at the Harvard school, said in a statement.

What the study did

To determine if optimism plays a role in longevity, the researchers analyzed data and survey responses collected from 159,255 postmenopausal women who had enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative from 1993 to 1998 and were followed for up to 26 years. The researchers note that the WHI took pains to recruit a diverse set of participants, including 14,261 Black, 6,287 Hispanic/Latina and 4,144 Asian women.

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When they were first interviewed, the women completed a revised version of a standard psychological exam called the “Life Orientation Test.” The test rates optimism based on responses to statements — such as “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best,” or “I hardly ever expect things to go my way” — that test takers are asked to rate on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Study participants were separated into four groups based on their determined levels of optimism. The researchers found participants who fell into the most optimistic tier were likely to have a 5.4 percent longer life span (after adjusting for demographics, chronic conditions and depression) and a 10 percent greater likelihood of living beyond 90 years than those in the least optimistic tier.

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The average life expectancy for the women in the study was set based on the U.S. average for women in 2018, which was 81.2 years. Having a 5.4 percent longer life span translated into an average of 4.4 years of extended life, according to the study.

The study also noted that the longevity benefits of maintaining an optimistic outlook are comparable to gains that may come through exercise. “Studies have shown that regular exercise adds 0.4-4.2 years of life when adjusting for confounding risk factors. Thus, our findings suggest the impact of optimism may be comparable to that of exercise,” the researchers wrote.

Optimism beneficial regardless of race or ethnicity

In a previous study, Koga and her research partners had similarly found that optimism was associated with a longer life span, but that study looked mostly at a white population. As a follow-up, the investigators turned to a broader sample. “Including diverse populations in research is important to public health because these groups have higher mortality rates than white populations, and there is limited research about them to help inform health policy decisions,” the researchers wrote in the study’s press release.

Again, after adjusting for demographics, chronic conditions and depression, the study found across race and ethnicity that the most optimistic women had longer life spans than the least optimistic women — although with some variation.

The estimates for racial and ethnic subgroups were:

  • a 5.1 percent longer life span for non-Hispanic white women
  • 7.6 percent for Black women
  • 5.4 percent for Hispanic/Latina women
  • 1.5 percent for Asian women
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