Optimism May Lower Cancer Mortality in Women

Premature death could potentially be prevented through psychological efforts.

Could women live longer by adopting a more positive attitude? Findings from a new study suggest that preventing premature death in this population may be just that simple.

In the study, published by the American Journal of Epidemiology, investigators found that women who were optimistic had a significantly reduced mortality risk from major causes of death, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, and respiratory disease over an 8-year period compared with women who were less optimistic.

The researchers define optimism as having the expectation that positive things will happen, despite any hardships individuals may face.

“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 co-lead author of the study Eric Kim, PhD. “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.”

The investigators also discovered that healthy behaviors did not play a major role in the link between optimism and reduced mortality risk, which may mean that optimism and positive thinking impact our biological systems, according to the study.

Included in the analysis were 70,000 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study from 2004 to 2012. The Nurse’s Health Study tracks women’s health via a survey administered every 2 years.

Specifically, investigators looked at each individual’s level of optimism, and other factors that may impact mortality, such as race, blood pressure, diet, and physical activity.

Women who were in the top quartile, the most optimistic participants, had a 30% lower risk of mortality from the mentioned diseases compared with women in the lowest quartile, the least optimistic participants.

The most optimistic individuals had a 16% lower risk of cancer mortality, 38% lower risk of heart disease-related mortality, 89% lower risk of mortality resulting from a stroke, 38% lower risk of respiratory disease-related mortality, and a 52% lower risk of mortality from an infection, according to the study.

Although other studies have already discovered a link between optimism and premature death from heart disease, this is the first to link optimism and reduced mortality risk from other causes.

“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,” said co-lead author of the study Kaitlin Hagan, PhD. “Encouraging use of these interventions could be an innovative way to enhance health in the future.”