Fannie Cooper, a.k.a. “Fafa” or “Queen” to Rebecca Plaut, her granddaughter, is 98 “and perfect,” according to Plaut. Cooper hasn’t discovered the Fountain of Youth, but somehow she’s tapped into a Fountain of Longevity. Her tips for living a good, long life? “Live moderately and try your hardest to do your best.”
Patricia Cheney, 92 years old and also a grandmother, advises aspiring elderly folks to “always keep the chin up. Things do go wrong, but eventually, they turn the right way.” Cooper and Cheney, with their urge to keep your chin up and always do your best, even when facing the worst, might be onto something.
Genetics, environment, and lifestyle most prominently determine lifespan. But a fair bit of our lifestyle is in our control. Research suggests that another worthwhile tip is to think and live optimistically — to generally expect positive outcomes in the future.
Previous studies explore optimism and longevity, but mainly in non-Hispanic white populations. A paper published earlier this month in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society addressed this gap by assessing optimism, lifestyle, and longevity in more than 150,000 racially and ethnically diverse women.
Science in action — The researchers used data from the Women’s Health Initiative, a longitudinal study that began in 1993 and is still ongoing. Specifically, they gathered information from 159,255 participants aged 50 to 79 who took part in the study. They continued enrollment until 1998, and then kept tabs on each woman for up to 26 years.
Optimism doesn’t have a standard unit of measurement, but there’s a survey called the Life Orientation Test-Revised scale that can gauge how optimistic someone is. It’s a survey of 10 statements, each of which participants responded with one of five answers ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The researchers then calculated a score based on participants' responses.
The researchers adjusted for demographics, chronic illness, depression, and health-related factors. Even after accounting for these factors, the link between optimism and lifespan remained strong.
Hayami Koga, a social scientist, and the study’s lead author says that paying attention to what positively impacts our health is just as important as knowing what harms us. “It’s also important to think about the positive things like optimism that can affect our health and to practice this to stay healthy and live longer, especially if we see that these benefits are seen across diverse groups,” Koga writes to Inverse.
The fact that optimism offers benefits across diverse groups is critical because it’s a relatively easy adjustment that anyone can make. While people of different genders, races, and ethnicities may experience different challenges, this study provides evidence that a little optimism can go a long way.
Why it’s a hack — Compared to the bottom 25 percent of least optimistic women, the top 25 percent of most optimistic women had both a longer lifespan and a better chance of living past age 90. Specifically, they had a 5.4 percent increased lifespan and 10 percent chance, respectively. In 2018 the life expectancy for U.S. women was 81.2 years, translating the percentage increase to about four additional years. That’s about as much as regular exercise can add to life expectancy.
Speaking of lifestyle factors, like exercise and eating habits, the researchers found that these choices influenced the optimism-lifespan link by less than 25 percent. In other words, optimism is a healthy practice in its own right.
How this affects longevity — Koga’s study aligns with years of previous work finding that optimism increases lifespan — and adds the pivotal fact that this remains true regardless of race or ethnicity. Researchers are still trying to understand the pathways by which optimism lengthens life. One study from this past March examined how optimism may be associated with stressors and emotional reactivity, finding that higher levels of optimism linked with lower exposures to stress were more likely to create emotional well-being in later age.
There could also be a connection between higher levels of optimism and how one addresses their own health. “Prior research suggests that optimists tend to use problem-solving and planning strategies to minimize health risks,” Koga writes to Inverse.
Glass-half-full people, according to Koga, might also be more likely to have a number of healthful attributes. “We might speculate that optimistic people may also be better at regulating their emotions during stressful situations, have greater social support, have more favorable biological profiles, such as lower levels of inflammation and favorable autonomic nervous system responses,” she writes.
On the other hand, the secret ingredient may simply be less negativity. Another study from earlier this month finds that while less pessimism positively impacts health, higher optimism doesn’t necessarily do more.
Optimism doesn’t have to mean that one cleaves to a conflict-free future or the belief that things will go your way. Sometimes it can simply be knowing that eventually things will even out, and that makes it worthwhile to keep going.
Hack score — 👵🏿👵🏻👵🏾👵🏼👵🏽👵🏼👵🏿/10 (7 out of 10 racially and ethnically diverse optimistic nonagenarian women)