Expecting good things to happen may prove true when it comes to health. A recent study examining the relationship between dispositional optimism and healthy aging among older adults found that optimism has benefits for multiple dimensions of health.
Data came from the Health and Retirement Study, a study of a nationally representative sample of US adults age 50 and better. The researchers focused on a sample that included 5,698 participants who had no missing health data, responded to questions measuring optimism, and were considered healthy at baseline. These participants had completed face-to-face interviews in 2006 and 2008, as well as follow-up measures every two years until 2014.
“Healthy” was defined as good physical and cognitive functioning and the absence of major chronic diseases. Good physical functioning was characterized by three or fewer physical limitations (for example, the ability to walk several blocks, lift or carry 10 pounds, and get up from a chair without difficulty). Cognitive functioning was measured with an assessment that tested memory and attention. Major chronic diseases were cancers or malignant tumors (except minor skin cancer), heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and chronic lung disease.
The results revealed that higher optimism at start of the study was linked to an increased chance of staying healthy (good physical and cognitive functioning and no major chronic diseases) over the next six to eight years, even after accounting for other factors such as race, income, depression, alcohol use, smoking, physical activity, and body weight. Participants who scored in the top quartile for optimism were 24% more likely to remain healthy as compared to those in the bottom quartile for optimism.
Future studies should be undertaken to understand the mechanisms behind the association. For example, a relationship between optimism and unstudied health behaviors could account for the good health of participants, or optimism could lead to healthier regulation of physiological systems. Alternatively, optimism could result in better social support systems that positively impact health.
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Kim ES, James P, Zevon ES, Trudel-Fitzgerald C, Kubzansky LD, & Grodstein F. Optimism and healthy aging in women and men. American Journal of Epidemiology, (2019); 188(6): 1084-1091.