Stay optimistic and you might live longer, new research says

US life expectancy is up for the first time in four years, official statistics showed Thursday. The figure was 76.1 years for men and 81.2 for women

New US research has found that people who are more optimistic are more likely to live longer, possibly even achieving "exceptional longevity," which is living to age 85 or older.

The large-scale study by researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), National Center for PTSD at VA Boston Healthcare System and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health looked at 69,744 women and 1,429 men. They were asked to complete surveys to to assess their level of optimism, as well as their overall health and health habits such as diet, smoking status and alcohol use.

After following the women for ten years and the men for 30 years, the researchers found that the most optimistic men and women seemed to benefit from an 11 to 15 percent longer lifespan, and had a 50 to 70 percent greater chance living to the age of 85 and older, compared to the least optimistic participants. 

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, held true even after taking into account age, socioeconomic status, educational attainment, health conditions such as depression, social integration, and health behaviors such as smoking, diet, and alcohol use.

The team noted that most research on exceptional longevity has looked at how biomedical factors -- bodily states that can affect a person's risk of disease, such as high blood pressure -- can affect lifespan. However, more recent studies have also investigated the impact of nonbiological factors, such as psychological attributes like optimism. The researchers explained that optimism is characterized as the general expectation that good things will happen, or the belief that the future will be favorable because one can control important outcomes.

"While research has identified many risk factors for diseases and premature death, we know relatively less about positive psychosocial factors that can promote healthy aging," explained study author Lewina Lee, PhD. "This study has strong public health relevance because it suggests that optimism is one such psychosocial asset that has the potential to extend the human lifespan. Interestingly, optimism may be modifiable using relatively simple techniques or therapies."

How optimism may help people live longer is still unclear, although senior author Laura Kubzansky, PhD, noted that, "Other research suggests that more optimistic people may be able to regulate emotions and behavior as well as bounce back from stressors and difficulties more effectively."

The researchers also suggested that more optimistic people tend to have healthier habits, such as being more active and being less likely to smoke, which could promote a longer life.