Optimism and Health

Greater Optimism Predicts Living Longer and Better

What if You Have an Optimistic Spouse?

Do optimistic people really live longer than pessimists? Researchers at the University of Michigan used data from 6,985 participants at least 50 years of age in the 2006 wave of the Health and Retirement Study to find out. The well-validated Life Orientation Test-Revised measured optimism in this and the next two studies. Participants responded to seven questions rating their agreement with each on a scale of one to seven. Optimism scores, potentially ranging from 7 to 49, fell into five categories from low to high optimism. After accounting for sociodemographic and health factors, participants in the lowest category of optimism had a 143 percent higher risk of premature death than participants in the highest category of optimism over four years of follow-up. Similarly, participants in the lowest category of optimism had a 166 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular-related causes.

A new study from Harvard linked optimism to healthy aging. Researchers used data from 5,698 participants in the Health and Retirement Study. Healthy aging, evaluated every two years post-baseline, reflected 1) no major chronic diseases, and 2) no cognitive impairment, and 3) good physical functioning. At baseline, 43 percent of participants met all three healthy aging criteria. Participants in the highest quartile of optimism scores were 24 percent more likely to maintain healthy aging during 6-8 years of follow-up compared to participants in the lowest quartile, even after accounting for a host of confounding factors.

People in your social networks can affect your behavior. Recent research suggests that spousal attempts to Keep Moving can cause cardiac patients to Keep Moving. It’s not much of a leap to imagine that optimistic spouses might influence their partners to be healthier. Researchers used data for 1,970 couples over age 50 who participated in the Health and Retirement Survey to test this idea. Health was evaluated in 2006, 2008, and 2010 in three ways: 1) self-rated health as excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor; 2) physical function as the number of “yes” responses to 23 questions relating to activities of daily living, motor skills, general mobility, and so on; and 3) the number of self-reported chronic diseases (ranging from 0-8).

Spousal optimism predicted better partner physical functioning and fewer chronic illnesses over a four-year period, regardless of the partner’s level of optimism or sociodemographic factors. Higher partner optimism also predicted better self-reported partner health and physical functioning over time. Your high level of optimism may help motivate your spouse or significant other to make better lifestyle choices and enjoy better health.

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