Living Longer on the Sunny Side of the Street


Optimists have lower death rates and are less likely to be hypertensive, diabetic or be smokers than pessimists. Wow! So maybe attitude IS everything!

An interesting study titled Psychological Traits and Total Mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative was presented in March 2009 at the American Psychosomatic Society’s 67th annual meeting by Dr. Hilary Tindle, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Tindle and her colleagues found optimistic postmenopausal women fared better over time than pessimists.

Data from the Women’s Health Initiative

Dr. Tindle and her team analyzed data from the large Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study. [The WIH is a huge study funded by the National Institutes of Health that has been following nearly 100,000 women ages 50 and over since 1991. It is looking into the most common causes of death, disability, and impaired quality of life in postmenopausal women. This is the same study that cast the huge cloud of doubt over the safety of hormone replacement.]

Dr. Tindle’s Study

Women were evaluated for two traits:

  • Optimism (expectation of good outcomes when faced with uncertainty) versus pessimism (expectation of bad outcomes when faced with uncertainty).
  • High cynical hostility versus low cynical hostility.

Researchers did not directly compare optimism and cynical hostility; rather they compared optimists to pessimists and women with high cynical hostility to women with low cynical hostility. After controlling for other risk factors (including age, education, income level, smoking, drinking, diabetes, exercise, depressive symptoms and preventive health behaviors) they found that, eight years into the study, overall optimistic women were 14% more likely to still be alive than their pessimistic women. Pessimists were more likely to have died from all causes, including heart disease and cancer.

Of interest, black women seemed to have fared worse than white women where pessimism and cynical hostility were concerned. While white pessimistic women were 13% more likely to die, pessimistic black women were 33% more likely. Dr. Tindle proposes that there may be a difference in how optimism affects longevity in different races. [My note: It is hard for me not to consider that black women’s optimism has historically been challenged to a far greater extent than white women’s. Could this play a part in these findings?]

Dr. Tindle’s Thoughts

Though the results hint at an association between certain psychological factors and length of life, Dr. Tindle has been quoted as cautioning, “We cannot draw a causal relationship from this data. More research is needed to determine whether treatment designed to increase optimism or decrease cynical hostility would lead to better health outcomes.”

In an article published by Time Online, Dr. Tindle proposed a few potential explanations which she would like to explore in future studies:

  • Maybe optimistic people have more friends and a social network on which they can depend during crises.
  • Maybe optimistic people handle their own stress better. (Stress is a risk factor associated with high blood pressure, heart disease and even early death).
  • Maybe genes and metabolic processes keep them from panicking or turning toward self destructive thoughts during uncertain times.
  • Or maybe optimists follow through on medical advice more faithfully than pessimists, thus giving them a better chance of staving off life-threatening disease.

My Thoughts

I’m not sure any of us can change our basic nature anymore than a leopard can change its spots. But I am absolutely certain we each control our thoughts and the way we react to the things that happen to us.

I believe that each of us has the power to choose whether our reactions to the challenges we will inevitably face will be constructive or destructive. To me this study reinforces the benefit of walking on the sunny side of the street and highlights the risks of turning toward one’s dark side.

What do you think?

This information is offered for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, prescribe or treat. For that please seek direct care from a health professional.

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