Optimistic women are less likely to die of fatal diseases when they are older, according to a study on the impact of optimism on health.
The study, led by researchers from Harvard University and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, showed that women who identified themselves as optimistic had a significantly reduced risk of dying from serious diseases such as cancer, stroke, respiratory, and heart disease.
“While most medical and public health efforts today focus on reducing risk factors for diseases, evidence has been mounting that enhancing psychological resilience may also make a difference,” said Erik Kim, lead author of the study, in a statement. “Our new findings suggest that we should make efforts to boost optimism, which has been shown to be associated with healthier behaviors and healthier ways of coping with life challenges.”
The researchers looked at the data of more than 70,000 women between the ages of 58 and 83 who had completed a US-wide survey that asked them to rate how optimistic they thought they were, on a scale of zero to 24. They then monitored the women for the next eight years and recorded any disease-related deaths.
The results showed that the most optimistic women were nearly 30 percent less at risk of dying of one of the diseases covered in the study compared with the least optimistic. The results were controlled for other factors that might affect mortality rates, including race, economic and marital status, diet, and a history of previous health issues.
Of the group, the most optimistic were found to have a 39 percent lower risk of dying from a stroke, 38 percent lower risk of dying from heart and respiratory diseases, and 16 percent lower risk of dying from cancer.
The study authors acknowledge that healthy behaviors linked with a positive mental attitude – such as diet and exercise – could explain some of the links between optimism and a reduced mortality rate. However, they suggest that one possibility to be explored further is that higher optimism directly impacts our bodies biologically, not just psychologically.
They also concluded that optimism is something that can be learned, and should be encouraged. With an obviously positive effect, it would benefit not just the well-being of an individual, but public health in general, reducing the strain on the Amercian medical system.
“Previous studies have shown that optimism can be altered with relatively uncomplicated and low-cost interventions – even something as simple as having people write down and think about the best possible outcomes for various areas of their lives, such as careers or friendships,” said postdoctoral research fellow Kaitlin Hagan, co-lead author of the study. “Encouraging use of these interventions could be an innovative way to enhance health in the future.”