A new Harvard study shows that optimistic women have a reduced risk of dying from several diseases including cancer, heart disease, respiratory illness, stroke, and infection.

Optimistic women can live longer compared to women that have a less positive mental attitude. Study authors said that optimism can be taught and should be key when reducing health risks. An investigation from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston found that women that have an optimistic outlook on life live longer since their positive mental attitude leads them to healthier habits.

Happy woman in Winter
Optimistic women are less likely to develop several diseases, according to a new Harvard study. Image credit: iStock.

Study leader Eric Kim, a research fellow at T.H. Chan School, stated that the combination of optimism and a healthy lifestyle —including better sleep patterns, better coping habits to reduce stress and even a tendency to exercise more— is the reason behind a reduced risk of major causes of death.

Healthy habits only partially explain the link between optimism and greater chances to live longer. Kim said that there is another possibility: Optimism directly impacts the biological system, making people less vulnerable to diseases.

“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 Kim. “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.”

Around 70,000 women were evaluated to see if their positive attitude helped them reduce their risk to suffer from disease

Kim and colleagues based their work on data from the Nurse’s Health Study, a long-term observational study that only includes female nurses. It began in 1976, but the Harvard study took information from 2004 to 2012 and included over 70 thousand women.

In 2014, participants had to answer a survey that included six questions designed to measure optimism. Women were asked the degree to which they agreed with certain statements, for example: “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.” The survey also looked at other factors, including race, high blood pressure, diet and physical activity.

The study shows that the most optimistic women had a nearly 30 percent lower risk of dying from cancer, heart disease, respiratory illness, stroke, and infection compared to less optimistic women.

The most optimistic women had a 52 percent lower risk of dying from infection; 39 percent lower risk of dying from a stroke; 38 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease and respiratory illness; and 16 percent lower risk of dying from cancer.

The authors did not include the answers of women who died within two years after they were asked optimism-related questions to ensure the data did not represent a recent change in optimism due to a health issue.

To determine causes of death among participants who died between 2006 and 2012, Kim and his team consulted state vital records and the National Death Index. They found 98 percent of the causes of death of the deceased survey respondents during that period and used the information to calculate how optimism could reduce risks for certain diseases.

The study is not the first to link optimism with a reduced risk of early death from cardiovascular problems, but it is the first one to assess optimism’s outcomes regarding other conditions, including cancer.

Optimism is inherited, but it can also be learned

Twin studies have discovered that a general expectation that good things will happen is inherited 25 percent of the time. However, Eric Kim said that optimism could be learned.

Postdoctoral research fellow Kaitlin Hagan, the co-author of the study, explained that optimism could be reached altering relatively uncomplicated and low-cost habits. She stated that previous studies have proved that even something as simple as having people writing down situations and think about the best possible outcomes for them can boost positive thoughts. She added that encouraging this type of behavior could be an innovative way to improve health in the future.

Happy woman
The new research was published earlier this week in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Image credit: Business Wolf.

Another technique to start thinking more positive is having a gratitude journal and keeping a list of the times you have been kind to others. Its impact is small but accurate when it comes to increasing optimism. If you want better results, Kim said that practicing mindfulness meditation frequently has shown to improve optimism because of its various types of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Eric Kim stressed that because their study and others have proved that optimism is essential to reducing risks of certain diseases, it does not mean that a person with a condition can cure him/herself by being positive.

“We don’t want to see victim blaming,” said Kim, adding that there are many variables when it comes to what make humans sick. Although a positive attitude helps with human’s health, it is not the only element in the equation.

Source: Harvard Gazette