Individuals with greater optimism are more likely to live longer and to achieve “exceptional longevity,” according to researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM).

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% longer lifespan, and had 50-70% greater odds of reaching 85 years old compared to the least optimistic groups.

These findings appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It is unclear how exactly optimism helps people attain longer life but other research suggests that more optimistic people may be able to regulate emotions and behavior as well as bounce back from stressors and difficulties more effectively.

 

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.

“While research has identified many risk factors for diseases and premature death, we know relatively less about positive psychosocial factors that can promote healthy aging,” said study author Lewina Lee, PhD, clinical research psychologist at the National Center for PTSD at VA Boston and assistant professor of psychiatry at BUSM. “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.”

Study assessed levels of optimism

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.

The results were maintained after accounting for age, demographic factors such as educational attainment, chronic diseases, depression and also health behaviors, such as alcohol use, exercise, diet and primary care visits.

Fran Grodstein, ScD, senior author and professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said: “Research on the reason why optimism matters so much remains to be done, but the link between optimism and health is becoming more evident.

“Our study contributes to scientific knowledge on health assets that may protect against mortality risk and promote resilient aging. We hope that our findings will inspire further research on interventions to enhance positive health assets that may improve the public’s health with aging."