Stay Optimistic, Live Longer?

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An optimistic outlook may be good for your health.

In 2004 and again in 2008, researchers used a well-validated questionnaire to rate 70,021 women on their optimism. The women were asked to indicate their degree of agreement with six statements (for example, “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.”).

Researchers also collected information on educational and socioeconomic status, smoking, alcohol consumption, cancer, hypertension and other diseases and behavioral characteristics. The women’s average age was 70 at the start of the project.

The study, in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found significant associations between increasing levels of optimism and decreasing risks of death from cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease and infections.

The associations were particularly strong for cardiovascular disease. Those in the quarter with the highest optimism scores had a nearly 40 percent lower risk for heart disease and stroke than those in the lowest quarter, even after controlling for other health factors. The associations with cancer were also significant, but weaker.

“People can have low optimism for a wide array of reasons,” said the lead author, Eric S. Kim, a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Twin studies show it’s about 25 percent heritable, but that means it’s 75 percent social circumstances or under our own control.”