Is Shrinking Optimism Tied to Drop in U.S. Life Expectancy?

Harvard researchers find optimism is linked to less disease and longer lifespan.

Posted Dec 08, 2016

Source: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock

Researchers at Harvard University reported yesterday that people who are optimistic—as marked by a positive outlook and belief that good things will happen in the future—tend to live longer than their less-optimistic counterparts. The new study appeared online December 7, 2016 in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Scientific research linking longevity and optimism is timely and important. Anecdotally, the results of the 2016 Presidential election suggest that huge swaths of America are feeling marginalized and angry. Yesterday, in a person-of-the-year cover article, Time Magazine named Donald Trump president-elect of "The Divided States of America." For millions of voters across the U.S., optimism about our individual and collective future seems extraordinarily low—while pessimism appears to be running rampant.

U.S. Life Expectancy Declines for First Time Since 1993

This morning, the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics reported that life expectancy in the United States declined in 2015 for the first time in over two decades. Across the board, the CDC reported that U.S. death rates rose for eight of the top 10 leading causes of death including heart disease, stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases, unintentional injuries (overdoses, accidents, etc), Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and suicide.

Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics told NPR, “When you see increases in so many of the leading causes of death, it's difficult to pinpoint one particular cause as the culprit.” Notably, life expectancy at age 65 and older didn’t fall between 2014-2015. This indicates that the diseases and causes of death leading to lower life expectancy are primarily occurring in middle age or younger.

In a Washington Post article published today, Jiaquan Xu, an epidemiologist and lead author of the study, commented “So many leading causes of death increased ... This is unusual, and we don’t know what happened.”

Anne Case, professor of economics and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University added, “I think we should be very concerned.” Case sees these findings as a clarion call for more thorough research on the increase in deaths from heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. 

In 2015, Case and Angus Deaton, also an economist at Princeton, published a report, "Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife Among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century" in PNAS. This study put a spotlight on the unexpected jump in mortality rates among white middle-aged Americans between 1999 and 2013.

Case and Deaton hypothesize that the uptick of premature deaths in this demographic may be linked to what experts refer to as “diseases of despair.” Which include opioid-heroin overdoses, alcoholism, and suicide.

Today’s CDC report found that premature death is impacting an ever-widening group of Americans. One point of interest is that other Western nations aren’t experiencing similar rises in mortality. This suggests that public health experts need to pinpoint which factors: Including socioeconomic, psychological, and lifestyle habits in the United States may be increasing morbidity and reducing U.S. life expectancy.

Harvard Researchers Link Optimism with Increased Life Expectancy

The study on optimism and longevity was conducted by Eric S. Kim and colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and dovetails with the new report on U.S. life expectancy declines by the CDC. In an abstract for their new study, Kim et al. said,

"Growing evidence has linked positive psychological attributes like optimism to a lower risk of poor health outcomes, especially cardiovascular disease. It has been demonstrated in randomized trials that optimism can be learned. If associations between optimism and broader health outcomes are established, it may lead to novel interventions that improve public health and longevity.”

Kim and his team analyzed data from 70,000 women between 2004-2012. The researchers focused primarily on each participant's levels of optimism. And other factors that might play a role in how optimism could affect someone's odds of dying prematurely based on factors such as high blood pressure, diet, and physical activity. In a discussion of the findings, the researchers state,

"Optimists appear to differ on numerous processes that are critically important to a broad spectrum of health outcomes. It has been shown in several studies that optimism is associated with a healthier lipid profile, lower levels of inflammatory markers, higher levels of serum antioxidants, and as noted above, better immune responsiveness.

Other investigations have suggested a slower rate of telomere shortening over time, healthier autonomic function, and higher levels of heart rate variability. Indeed, results from these reports of associations between optimism and a wide array of health factors are consistent with our finding that optimism is associated with multiple causes of death."

Kim and his colleagues found that the most optimistic women had a 38 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease; 39 percent lower risk of dying from stroke; 38 percent lower risk of dying from respiratory disease; 16 percent lower risk of dying from cancer; and a 52 percent lower risk of dying from infection.

In fact, the top quartile of optimists had almost a 30 percent lower risk of dying from any of the diseases analyzed in the study when compared with the least optimistic women (the bottom quartile) in the study. In a statement to Harvard School of Public Health, Kim said,

"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. 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."

Kim emphasizes the study also found that healthier lifestyle behaviors only partially explain the link between optimism and reduced mortality risk. He believes another possibility may be that higher optimism directly impacts our biological systems.

These new findings from Harvard University add to a growing body of research linking optimism and pessimism to health outcomes and longevity. For example, a November 2016 study reported that pessimism is correlated with a higher risk of death from coronary heart disease. (I wrote about these findings in a Psychology Today blog post, "Pessimism May Exacerbate Your Risk for No. 1 Cause of Death")

The correlation between pessimism and death related to coronary heart disease remained even after adjusting for known physiological risk factors and socioeconomic differences, according to the researchers. In the abstract of this study, the authors write,

“Those who died because of coronary heart disease were significantly more pessimistic at baseline than the others. This finding applies to both men and women. . . . Pessimism seems to be a substantial risk factor for death from coronary heart disease.”

Optimism and pessimism can be boiled down to someone's attitude about his or her future. Whether you see the glass as half-full or half-empty is oftentimes a reflection of whether (or not) you expect a greater number of desirable or undesirable things to happen in the future. To gauge your overall levels of optimism and pessimism, consider the following: 

How Would You Respond to These Six Statements? 

  1. In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.
  2. If something can go wrong for me, it will.
  3. I'm always optimistic about my future.
  4. I hardly ever expect things to go my way.
  5. I rarely count on good things happening to me.
  6. Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad.

The six statements above are a helpful tool for taking inventory of your personal levels of optimism and pessimism. If you are feeling overly pessimistic about the future, hopefully, the latest empirical findings will serve as a call-to-action for you to be proactive about changing your explanatory style. Being more optimistic is scientifically proven to benefit your psychological and physical well-being for the near and distant future.

Optimism Is Not a Panacea. But Could Improve Your Health and Longevity

The bottom line is: Hopelessness and cynicism are bad for your health. And could lead to premature death. In a statement to HSPH, postdoctoral research fellow Kaitlin Hagan, co-lead author of the study with Kim, concluded,

"Previous studies have shown that optimism can be altered with relatively uncomplicated and low-cost interventions—even something as simple as having people write down and think about the best possible outcomes for various areas of their lives, such as careers or friendships. Encouraging use of these interventions could be an innovative way to enhance health in the future."

From a public health perspective, the latest research suggests that one inexpensive and practical way for Americans to protect our individual and collective well-being across a lifespan is to identify ways to increase optimism and reduce pessimism. Obviously, these changes in attitude are not a panacea. But the latest research suggests that finding ways to increase levels of optimism could improve health outcomes and life expectancies for people from all walks of life. 

References

Xu JQ, Murphy SL, Kochanek KD, Arias E. Mortality in the United States, 2015. NCHS data brief, no 267. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2016.

Eric S. Kim, Kaitlin A. Hagan, Francine Grodstein, Dawn L. DeMeo, Immaculata De Vivo, Laura D. Kubzansky; Optimism and Cause-Specific Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study. Am J Epidemiol 2016 1-9. doi: 10.1093/aje/kww182

Mikko Pänkäläinen et al, Pessimism and risk of death from coronary heart disease among middle-aged and older Finns: an eleven-year follow-up study, BMC Public Health (2016). DOI: 10.1186/s12889-016-3764-8 

Anne Case, Angus Deaton. Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015; 201518393 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1518393112