While we may have crossed the Fountain of Youth off the list of possible ways to live forever, scientists are still on the hunt for the keys to a long, healthy life. To date, there’s been a strong focus on what we can consume and what we can do to our bodies to achieve longevity. However, a study released Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences puts the focus on the state of our minds — and finds that “exceptional longevity” is intimately linked to optimism.
Exceptional longevity is defined as survival to age 85 or older. In developed countries around the world, lifespans are increasing, and exceptional longevity is becoming increasingly common. Despite this fact, there is no guarantee that a longer life means a longer happier life. So, a question that’s emerged is What will enable us to age well?
Optimism could be the answer. Lead author Lewina Lee, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, tells Inverse that this study indicates that optimism can be used as a “psychosocial resource” that can promote “healthy and resilient aging.”
Lee and a team of Massachusetts-based researchers examined data on 69,744 women from the Nurses’ Health Study and 1,429 men from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study. The women, who ranged in age from 58 to 86, were assessed from 1976 to 2014, and in 2004 they were asked to complete an optimism assessment. Meanwhile, the men were assessed from 1961 to 2016 and asked about the state of their optimism in 2016.
The analyses revealed certain patterns. For example, women with higher levels of optimism were more likely to have a higher educational degree and were less likely to report depression and type 2 diabetes. Men with higher levels of optimism were also likely to have higher levels of education and were less likely to report the same health conditions. Additionally, optimistic men were more likely to have a higher income and reported less alcohol use. Overall, optimistic men and women were more likely to engage in physical activity.
And when it came to longevity, higher levels of optimism were associated with extended lifespan and higher odds of achieving exceptional longevity across both groups. These associations persisted even after the researchers adjusted for demographics and baseline health conditions like high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, and cancer, as well as habits like smoking, primary care visits, and alcohol use — the sort of things that could reasonably affect how likely a person is to be optimistic and live for a long time.
Furthermore, the associations stuck around after the researchers adjusted for whether or not a person experienced depression, “suggesting optimism does not simply signal the absence of psychological distress and related risks, but rather may confer independent benefits for longevity.”
The team writes it this way:
A unique feature of this study is the focus on exceptional longevity. While prior studies have reported that optimism may reduce risk of premature death in mid- and later life, the current findings suggest that optimism promotes substantially longer life span. As longer life span appears to accompany longer healthspan, our findings have implications for understanding psychosocial factors that promote healthy and resilient aging.
In other words, a person who practices optimism over the course of their life is more likely to live long and live healthily while they do it. This study joins others that have explored the health benefits of optimism, including a 2009 study from the University of Pittsburgh showing that women who are optimistic are 14 percent less likely to die from any causes than pessimists.
The authors of this new study believe their findings indicate that optimism could serve as a “valuable target for interventions seeking to promote health by fostering psychological resources.” However, the exact benefits of optimism are hard to pinpoint.
One explanation is that more optimistic individuals may “experience less extreme emotional reactivity,” which helps them recover more quickly from stressors. Still, Lee says that “scientists do not fully understand the pathways from optimism to health and longevity.”
“There is some evidence suggesting that optimistic people are more likely to have goals and the confidence to reach them, so optimism may help people cultivate and maintain healthier habits,” Lee explains. “Optimistic people may also be better at regulating their emotions during stressful situations, and have more favorable biological profiles, such as lower levels of inflammation.”
She notes that more research is needed to know whether or not those theories are definitively true. But it does appear evident that psychological assets can promote good health, and the likelihood of long life can’t be limited to genetic factors.
Most research on exceptional longevity has investigated biomedical factors associated with survival, but recent work suggests nonbiological factors are also important. Thus, we tested whether higher optimism was associated with longer life span and greater likelihood of exceptional longevity. Data are from 2 cohorts, women from the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and men from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study (NAS), with follow-up of 10 y (2004 to 2014) and 30 y (1986 to 2016), respectively. Optimism was assessed using the Life Orientation Test–Revised in NHS and the Revised Optimism–Pessimism Scale from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 in NAS. Exceptional longevity was defined as survival to age 85 or older. Primary analyses used accelerated failure time models to assess differences in life span associated with optimism; models adjusted for demographic confounders and health conditions, and subsequently considered the role of health behaviors. Further analyses used logistic regression to evaluate the likelihood of exceptional longevity. In both sexes, we found a dose-dependent association of higher optimism levels at baseline with increased longevity (P trend < 0.01). For example, adjusting for demographics and health conditions, women in the highest versus lowest optimism quartile had 14.9% (95% confidence interval, 11.9 to 18.0) longer life span. Findings were similar in men. Participants with highest versus lowest optimism levels had 1.5 (women) and 1.7 (men) greater odds of surviving to age 85; these relationships were maintained after adjusting for health behaviors. Given work indicating optimism is modifiable, these findings suggest optimism may provide a valuable target to test for strategies to promote longevity.