Optimism Increases Longevity, Reduces Risk of Cancer Death: Study

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Seeing the glass half-full may be more than a way to view life – it may actually help you live longer.

In a large-scale study involving 70,000 women, researchers found that those with an optimistic point of view had a significantly reduced risk of dying from a broad range of conditions.

Credit: Ann from Detroit, Happy Old Woman, CC BY-SA 2.0
Credit: Ann from Detroit, CC BY-SA 2.0

Optimistic people – those who generally expect good things to happen – saw a greatly reduced risk of poor health outcomes from heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, infection and even cancer, according to the study appearing in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The most optimistic women experienced a 30 percent decreased risk of dying from those diseases than women who had a bleaker view of the world. Specifically, the most positive thinkers saw a 52 percent decreased risk of dying from infection, a nearly 40 percent reduced risk of dying from stroke or heart disease and a 16 percent reduced risk of dying from cancer.

“To our knowledge, this is one of the first studies in which significant, broad-based associations between optimism and health, including cancer mortality, have been demonstrated in a general population sample,” notes the team of researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health.

The researchers believe that their results may open up a largely untouched area of mental health. “While most medical and public health efforts today focus on reducing risk factors for diseases, evidence has been mounting that enhancing psychological resilience may also make a difference,” said Eric Kim, co-lead author of the study.

“Our new findings suggest that we should make efforts to boost optimism, which has been shown to be associated with healthier behaviors and healthier ways of coping with life challenges,” Kim added.

The Power of Positive Thinking

“Optimists appear to differ on numerous processes that are critically important to a broad spectrum of health outcomes. It has been shown in several studies that optimism is associated with a healthier lipid profile, lower levels of inflammatory markers, higher levels of serum antioxidants [and] better immune responsiveness,” states the study.

The researchers point out that encouraging optimism is not a tremendous effort, and they believe that therapeutic methods can be implemented relatively easily.

“Previous studies have shown that optimism can be altered with relatively uncomplicated and low-cost interventions – even something as simple as having people write down and think about the best possible outcomes for various areas of their lives, such as careers or friendships,” said fellow study author Kaitlin Hagan.

“Encouraging use of these interventions could be an innovative way to enhance health in the future,” added Hagan. 

While the study only assessed optimism among women, previous research suggests a link between positive thinking and health benefits among men. One study shows that French men experienced a significant one-day dip in cardiovascular death rates on July 12, 1988, when the French national team won the World Cup. Some researchers attribute the decline to optimism.

If you’re seeking ways to inject more optimism in your life, take a cue from researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center, who start out by instructing you to “think positive thoughts about yourself and others.”

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.