Can Optimism Help You Live Longer?
By Jill Horn
Evidence from longevity research studies suggests that optimism may be key factor influencing healthy aging and lifespan, independent of lifestyle factors and gender. Importantly, recent studies have focused on investigating the role of optimism on lifespan in racially and ethnically diverse cohorts, given that previous studies on optimism have mainly been performed in predominantly White study populations.
“Broadly, optimism can be described as an adaptive behavior trait diminishing stress and anxiety related to possible negative outcomes.”
Optimism in a scientific context is generally defined as expectancy or prediction of a positive outcome and is often associated with better physical and psychological well-being. When exposed to adversity, optimists will experience less distress and engage in problem-focused coping when overcoming stressors. Broadly, optimism can be viewed as an adaptive behavior trait diminishing stress and anxiety related to possible negative outcomes. Optimism also often corresponds to more positive, proactive behaviors in the face of situations that require problem solving. Not surprisingly, the prediction of the worst possible outcomes with a high probability, a coping style also referred to as “catastrophizing” which can be seen as the diametric opposite to optimism, is often expressed by individuals with anxiety disorders, chronic pain, and disorders like irritable bowel syndrome.
“Another recent study looked at the association between optimism and longevity and found that higher levels of optimism were linked to a reduced risk of premature mortality by increasing lifespan by as much as 15%.”
Several high-quality peer-reviewed studies have looked at the relationship between optimism and both longevity and lifespan in recent years. A large-scale study published last year in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society examined long-term data from nearly 160,000 participants in the Women’s Health Initiative to investigate the relationship between optimism and longevity in a racially diverse cohort. The investigators found that the positive effects of optimism on longevity and lifespan were independent of ethnic origin and suggest that the health benefits of optimism apply across many racial and ethnic groups. In another study on optimism and mortality risk in an African American study population published in the journal Preventive Medicine, higher optimism levels were associated with lower mortality rates, independent from sociodemographic factors and depressive symptoms. Another recent study published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA looked at the association between optimism and longevity in a large cohort of African-American women (n = 2652) and men (n = 1444) in the United States from the Jackson Heart Study. Study results showed that higher levels of optimism were linked to reduced risk of premature mortality by increasing lifespan by as much as 15%. Furthermore, optimistic individuals were found to be at higher odds for achieving an exceptional age of 85 years and above.
“Importantly, …the act of imagining a positive future was associated with an attenuated diurnal cortisol response, corresponding to decreased activity of the HPA axis. This attenuation in stress response could be a critical underlying pathway of how optimism increases longevity.”
The association of optimism and increased lifespan and health has been suggested to depend on direct psychological and biological benefits of optimism, as well as indirectly on positive lifestyle changes associated with higher levels of optimism. A recent meta-analysis published in the journal Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience investigated the neural correlates of optimism by analyzing 14 neuroimaging studies and found a direct association between optimism and activity in two specific brain regions, the anterior cingulate cortex and the inferior frontal gyrus. The anterior cingulate cortex is a multifunctional brain area involved in imagining the future and self-referencing. Trait optimism, meaning optimism as part of one’s character, was positively correlated with activity in these brain regions. Importantly, another recent study published in the journal Psychoneuroimmunology found that the act of imagining a positive future was associated with an attenuated diurnal cortisol response, corresponding to decreased activity of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA) axis, one of the arms of the stress response. The attenuation in stress response observed in people who imagined a positive future could be a critical underlying pathway of how optimism increases longevity, as chronic stress, or allostatic load has been found to be one of the main driving factors of accelerated ageing and decreased lifespan. Optimism is also often associated with increased health behaviors, such as regular exercise, healthy dietary choices, improved sleep, and an enhanced social network. Even though these factors may contribute to the observed association between optimism and longevity, optimism seems to increase longevity independently of health behaviors, an important area of future research.
“Overall, it can be said that a direct association between optimism and longevity has been scientifically established in various large cohort studies.”
Overall, evidence from large cohort studies supports a direct association between optimism and longevity. However, it is important to realize that results from such cohort or epidemiological studies do not prove causality, in other words they do not prove a causal effect between an optimistic coping style and increased life span. As longevity is influenced by many interconnected factors, including genetics, and various lifestyle factors, prioritizing an optimistic mindset, in addition to maintaining a supportive social network, a healthy diet and regular physical exercise is definitely an effective strategy to live a long and healthy life.
Jill Horn is a recent UCLA graduate with a degree in Neuroscience. She is deeply interested in the interconnectedness of body, mind, and spirit takes an integrative approach to health and well-being. She aspires to the public about a research-based lifestyle and mindset that promote health. Jill also deeply resonates with the One Health concept, which emphasizes the interdependence of the health of people and the health of our planet, given the climate crisis we are facing.