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Optimism linked to long lifespans in study led by BU researcher

Boston University researcher Lewina Lee found that optimism is linked to longer lifespans in a study that was published by the National Academy of Sciences on Aug. 26th. COURTESY OF LEWINA LEE

Being optimistic can increase one’s lifespan, according to a study led by a researcher from Boston University published by the National Academy of Sciences on Aug. 26.

Lewina Lee, an assistant professor at BU, and Avron Spiro III, a research professor at BU, along with Peter James, Emily Zevon, Eric Kim, Claudia Trudel-Fitzgerald, Francine Grodstein and Laura Kubzansky of Harvard University found that optimism can expand your life to the age of 85 or higher.

One of the goals of the researchers from the BU School of Medicine and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health was to find new ways to encourage healthier living. Lee, the lead author on the study, wrote in an email that the team was looking for a correlation between one’s lifespan and their level of optimism.

“Most research has focused on poor health outcomes, but we wanted to consider the benefits of psychological assets in promoting good health,” Lee wrote. “As people are living longer, they also tend to enjoy more years of good health and living without disability, so factors that promote longevity may also be important for healthy aging.”

The study consisted of two groups: women from the Nurses’ Health Study and men from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study. Previous studies have already proved that having more positivity in your life can decrease the risk of getting a disease.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study was collected from 69,744 female and 1,429 male participants. While the women were only studied for ten years, the men were studied for thirty. The results of the study still proved to be true even after factoring in health conditions, depression, smoking, social engagement and alcohol usage.

“Most research has focused on deficits that increase the risks for diseases or
premature death, but our findings suggest that it may be fruitful for interventions to target health assets, such as optimism, and not just deficits, to promote public health,” Lee wrote. “Our finding that optimism is associated with exceptional longevity, even after adjusting for depression, supports this message.”

The researchers compared their studies from the least optimistic groups, and the results were 50 to 70 percent greater after reaching the age of 85.

“Optimism is a potential factor that could potentially mitigate or ameliorate the effects or buffer the effects of stress on poor health outcomes,” Lee said.

Although researchers typically base “exceptional longevity” on biological factors, Lee and her team demonstrated how positive psychological factors are a major component of raising the likelihood of a long lifespan.

“Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation,” Lee said. “So I would say that as we’re interpreting these findings, it doesn’t necessarily mean that if I make you more optimistic, then you will live longer. It does kind of lay the foundation.”

Now, Lee is moving on to her next study and she is recruiting surface research assistants in her lab to help research how optimism influences dealing with daily stressors.

Harmela Anteneh, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, said she thinks the study on optimism is helpful because she believes that positivity can help is every aspect of your life, especially when concerning illnesses.

“I think the oldest people that I know are pretty positive about life,” Anteneh said.

Yane Kim, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, said she believes optimism in one’s life is very important.

“I think that mental health affects your physical health also,” Kim said. “Maybe it’s going to help you live longer.”

David Tofu, a first year graduate student, said he thinks BU helping produce this study is a positive way to promote good mental health.

“I think the mindset of people is very important,” Tofu said. “[What is] more important is what’s on the inside, not necessarily on the outside.”

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