Well-Being Longevity

Higher levels of optimism may lead to increased longevity in women

Among women participating in the Women’s Health Initiative, those who reported higher levels of optimism tended to live longer lives, even after accounting for lifestyle factors.
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The Associated Press

Story at a glance

  • The effects of persistent optimism may extend beyond mental well-being and be comparable to the benefits of exercise.

  • Study results showed optimism was linked with increased longevity among women from different racial backgrounds.

  • Findings could have practical implications as many women reported poor mental health throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Being optimistic may be one of many popular personality traits and can play a big role in managing certain mental health conditions. 

Now, new research indicates optimism is not only good for individuals’ mental well-being, but is also associated with a longer lifespan among women across racial and ethnic groups. 

Researchers, which included experts from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Boston University School of Medicine, found higher optimism was linked with a greater likelihood of reaching “exceptional longevity” overall.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, research has documented declining mental health among working women, and particularly women of color. Women are also more likely than men to experience depression and bipolar disorder, while these conditions can affect women in different ways. 

Although previous studies have looked into the association between optimism, healthy aging and longevity, these were carried out among majority-white populations, authors explained. 

They also noted that although being optimistic is partly heritable, writing exercises and cognitive-behavioral strategies can help individuals modify their own optimism levels.

“This work, in conjunction with findings linking optimism to a range of outcomes including physical health suggest optimism may be a novel target for intervention to improve health,” authors wrote. 

For the current study, a total of 159,255 participants of the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) provided information on their optimism levels, while researchers collected health and demographic information. The WHI began in 1992 and concluded in 2005, although extension studies have continued in the years since.

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Exceptional longevity was defined as reaching age 90 or over. According to the CDC, average female life expectancy in the United States in 2020 was 80.5 years. 

More than half of the women in the entire cohort achieved exceptional longevity (53%), and those expressing the highest levels of optimism were more likely to reach this goal. 

When compared with those reporting the lowest levels of optimism, women who were the most optimistic had a 5.4 percent longer lifespan. 

Among non-Hispanic white women, this percentage dropped to 5.1 percent, and among Asian women it dropped to 1.5 percent. However, the percentage rose to 7.6 percent among Black women and remained the same among Hispanic/Latina women. 

Lifestyle-related factors such as smoking status, diet and physical activity had a modest effect on the relationship between optimism and lifespan.

“While some evidence suggests optimism itself is patterned by some social structural factors, meaningful associations between optimism and health remain even after robust adjustment for these factors and when examined separately across race and ethnic groups,” authors wrote.

For the full sample, lifestyle factors mediated the association between lifespan and optimism for 24 percent of participants. Among Asian women, lifestyle had the greatest mediating effect at 43 percent, compared with 25 percent of non-Hispanic white women, 10 percent of Black women and 24 percent of Hispanic/Latina women.

Authors noted more research is needed to determine whether this link is also present among women who live shorter lives.