Wellbeing and Mental Health

Women are more likely to live past 90 if they’re optimistic, according to a new study

The link between optimism and longer lifespan could be seen across racial and ethnic groups, the researchers said.

The link between optimism and longer lifespan could be seen across racial and ethnic groups, the researchers said. Image: Unsplash/Sam Manns

Victoria Masterson
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This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

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  • Harvard analysed data from almost 160,000 women aged between 50 and 79.
  • The study suggests optimistic women have a lifespan 5.4% longer than those who are the least optimistic - and are more likely to live into their 90s.
  • Other research links optimism with longer life in both men and women.
  • Optimism research can inform new approaches to mental and psychiatric health.

Women are more likely to live past 90 if they’re optimistic, according to researchers at Harvard University in the United States, who analysed 26 years’ worth of data from almost 160,000 women aged between 50 and 79.

Harvard’s key findings on positive women

The researchers found that the quarter of women in the study with the most positive outlook would probably live 5.4% longer than the least optimistic 25% of study participants.

The more optimistic women were also 10% more likely to live beyond the age of 90 than the least optimistic cohort.

The link between optimism and a longer lifespan could be seen across racial and ethnic groups, the researchers said.

The study, titled Optimism, Lifestyle and Longevity in a Racially Diverse Cohort of Women, is published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Charts showing optimism, lifestyle, and longevity in a racially diverse cohort of women.
Charts showing optimism, lifestyle, and longevity in a racially diverse cohort of women. Image: Journal of the American Geriatrics Society

Other studies on optimism and longer life

A study of more than 33,000 women in 2019 looked at whether higher optimism is associated with better health in older age. The results suggest optimistic women were 23% more likely to age healthily. The research, Optimism and Healthy Aging in Women, is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Another study of 1,429 men and 69,744 women in 2019 found that optimism was related to lifespans that were on average 11% to 15% longer. Optimism was also linked to the likelihood of “exceptional longevity” – ie living to the age of 85 or beyond - according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Chart showing link between optimism and lifespan.
Links between optimism and lifespan were found across racial and ethnic groups. Image: Journal of the American Geriatrics Society

So, what is optimism?

Optimism is the expectation that good things will happen, the PNAS study explains. It can also mean believing in a positive future, and a feeling of having control over how it turns out.

Another article explains that optimists generally have more positive than negative expectations. They also tend to report less distress in their daily lives, even when there are challenges.

This affects how people “experience situations in their daily lives, their health, and how they deal with emotions and stress,” explain the authors of the study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

They add that optimism tends to be a general outlook, rather than one focused on how or why a goal can be reached.

Optimism research can help with the development of new approaches to mental and psychiatric health. One example is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which help patients explore how beliefs and attitudes affect behaviour, encouraging in them a more positive view of the future.

“Simple daily actions” can boost mental strength, even in the midst of uncertainty, say the report authors.

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