Optimism is Good Medicine!

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Optimism is definitely good for women’s health — especially as we age. That’s the findings of a 2019 study by Dr. Peter James & his colleagues, of Harvard Medical School. 

Researchers followed the health of more than 33,000 American women for 8 years. The women who entered the study were of average age 67. All were in good health. They completed various health tests, including a psychological test that measured their level of optimism. Some of the women were found to be in the ‘most optimistic’ group. Others were in the ‘least optimistic’ group. 

At the end of the study, 8 years later, researchers again checked the women’s health. They discovered that women in the ‘most optimistic’ group were 23% more likely to still be healthy, living free of chronic illness, and without cognitive or physical impairment — as compared to the women in the ‘least optimistic’ group.

This is an important study: It’s lengthy (8 years), large (more than 33,000 women) and ‘prospective’ (it studies effects not apparent at the outset). These are significant findings. Women’s health, over time, is affected by their level of optimism! 

So, you might wonder, what was the ‘optimism’ measured in this study? What is this optimistic attitude that’s so good for women’s health?

The study’s author defined optimism as your "expectation that good things will happen".  

In the study, optimism was measured by asking participants to consider the truth of 6 self-report statements. Each statement was designed to measure their attitude to uncertainty and stress. They were asked to decide, using a sliding scale: Is this true for me?

Here's 3 of those test statements:

If something can go wrong for me, it will.”  --  Does this seem true for you?

I hardly ever expect things to go my way.”  -- Does this seem true for you?

I rarely count on good things happening to me.”  -- Does this seem true for you?

Each woman's level of optimism was determined based on how she identified with these statements. She also filled out a series of other questionnaires that assessed her general health.

Eight years later, the same women filled out the health questionnaires again, and researchers reviewed how their health had changed. They discovered: “Higher optimism was associated with increased likelihood of healthy aging.” The women with highest levels of optimism were 23% more likely to be healthy, 8 years later. 

This study has a very practical message. Over time, an optimistic attitude is associated with better health outcomes for women. This is real 'mind-body' medicine - we see here that psychological factors can affect physical as well as psychological health.

Notice your usual attitude to uncertainty and stress. Could you choose a more optimistic attitude? What would that feel like?

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[ See the 'abstract' summary of this scientific paper: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30573140/ ]

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