Optimism in Seniors Predicts Fewer Chronic Illnesses, Better Overall Health

By Melanie Tannenbaum for Scientific American

Can having a positive outlook on life actually make you physically healthier?

To answer this question, psychologists William Chopik, Eric Kim, and Jacqui Smith turned to the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a nationally representative survey that has been gathering data from thousands of aged-50-and-older Americans since 1992. Namely, the researchers wanted to know if higher levels of optimism could protect seniors from the nasty mental and physical health effects of aging -- and ifchanges in optimism (over a relatively short period of time) actually resulted in positive changes in health.

At two separate time points spaced four years apart, the seniors' dispositional optimism was measured with questions like, "In uncertain times, I usually expect the best," or "If something can go wrong for me, it will" (someone with a high level of optimism would strongly agree with the first statement and strongly disagree with the second). The seniors also disclosed information about their current health status via self-report ("Would you say your health is excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor?") and via reported physician diagnoses for eight common chronic illnesses that become more prevalent in older age (high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, lung disease, coronary heart disease, emotional/psychiatric problems, arthritis/rheumatism, and stroke).

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