Women could stand to benefit from higher levels of optimism. According to new research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, women who rate higher on optimism tend to have longer lifespans and a higher chance of living past 90.
The study builds on previous research looking into the link between optimism and life expectancy. Although the previous work did discover that higher levels of optimism went hand-in-hand with greater life expectancy and higher incidence of exceptional longevity, it focused mostly on white women. To see if the link can be observed across racial and ethnic groups, the current study included a more diverse population of participants.
Such a step is necessary and useful, the team explains, as many of these groups tend to have higher mortality rates than white populations, and there is limited direct data available for them to guide health policy decisions.
"Although optimism itself may be affected by social structural factors, such as race and ethnicity, our research suggests that the benefits of optimism may hold across diverse groups," said Hayami Koga, a PhD student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and lead author of the study. "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."
For the study, the team gathered data and survey responses from 159,255 participants among participants in the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study. This focused on menopausal women in the U.S. between the ages of 50 to 79 years old, who enrolled from 1993 to 1998 and were followed for up to 26 years. The women completed a validated measure of optimism and provided other demographic and health data at the start of the study.
Of these participants, the 25% ranking highest on optimism had a 5.4% longer lifespan, on average, compared to the 25% ranked lowest on optimism. They also had a 10% greater likelihood of living past the 90-year-old-mark.
The team found no evidence of optimism influencing different racial or ethnic groups differently than the rest, even after taking into account demographic factors, chronic conditions, or depression. Lifestyle factors such as regular exercise and healthy eating did have an effect on lifespan, but this was less than a quarter than that associated with optimism, the team explains, likely indicating that other factors are at play here.
"We tend to focus on the negative risk factors that affect our health," said Koga."It is also important to think about the positive resources such as optimism that may be beneficial to our health, especially if we see that these benefits are seen across racial and ethnic groups."
The paper "Optimism, lifestyle, and longevity in a racially diverse cohort of women" has been published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.