The desire to live as long as possible gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Since the dawn of civilisation, mankind has devised inventive ways to survive and thrive. The field of science has helped to advance this cause, providing extensive evidence to help people make informed decisions about their health. Physical health is unquestionably important, but a new study also sheds a light on the role of psychosocial factors.
Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), National Center for PTSD at VA Boston Healthcare System and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, have found that individuals with greater optimism are more likely to live longer and to achieve “exceptional longevity,” that is, living to age 85 or older.
Optimism refers to a general expectation that good things will happen, or believing that the future will be favourable because people can control important outcomes.
Whereas research has identified many risk factors that increase the likelihood of diseases and premature death, much less is known about positive psychosocial factors that can promote healthy ageing.
The study was based on 69,744 women and 1,429 men.
Both groups completed survey measures to assess their level of optimism, as well as their overall health and health habits such as diet, smoking and alcohol use.
Women were followed for 10 years, while the men were followed for 30 years. When individuals were compared based on their initial levels of optimism, the researchers found that the most optimistic men and women demonstrated, on average, an 11 to 15 per cent longer lifespan, and had 50-70 per cent greater odds of reaching 85 years old compared to the least optimistic groups.
The results were maintained after accounting for age, demographic factors such as educational attainment, chronic diseases, depression and also health behaviours, such as alcohol use, exercise, diet and primary care visits.
Interestingly, optimism may be modifiable
Lewina Lee, corresponding author
“While research has identified many risk factors for diseases and premature death, we know relatively less about positive psychosocial factors that can promote healthy ageing,” explained corresponding author Lewina Lee, PhD, clinical research psychologist at the National Center for PTSD at VA Boston and assistant professor of psychiatry at BUSM.
Lee added: “This study has strong public health relevance because it suggests that optimism is one such psychosocial asset that has the potential to extend the human lifespan. Interestingly, optimism may be modifiable using relatively simple techniques or therapies.”
It is unclear how exactly optimism helps people attain longer life.
“Other research suggests that more optimistic people may be able to regulate emotions and behaviour as well as bounce back from stressors and difficulties more effectively,” said senior author Laura Kubzansky, PhD, MPH, Lee Kum Kee Professor of Social and Behavioural Sciences and co-director, Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The researchers also consider that more optimistic people tend to have healthier habits, such as being more likely to engage in more exercise and less likely to smoke, which could extend lifespan.
“Research on the reason why optimism matters so much remains to be done, but the link between optimism and health is becoming more evident,” noted senior author Fran Grodstein, ScD, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and professor of medicine at the Channing Division of Network Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
“Our study contributes to scientific knowledge on health assets that may protect against mortality risk and promote resilient ageing. We hope that our findings will inspire further research on interventions to enhance positive health assets that may improve the public’s health with ageing,” added Lee.
Commenting on the findings, the NHS highlighted that cause and effect remained a stumbling block.
The health body said: “Many hereditary, health, lifestyle and personal circumstances may influence both a person’s lifespan and their outlook on life.
It added: “The analyses tried to adjust for many of these but it is difficult to fully account for all influencing factors.”
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