A US study that followed nearly 100,000 post-menopausal women found that optimists had lower rates of death and incidence of many chronic diseases compared to pessimists, as did women who were more trustful of people compared to their cynically hostile counterparts.

The study was led by Dr Hilary Tindle, who is assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Internal Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and who presented the findings at the American Psychosomatic Society’s 67th annual meeting in Chicago last week.

Tindle and colleagues analyzed data from the Women’s Health Initiative, an ongoing study funded by the National Institutes of Health that has been following women aged 50 and over since 1994.

Defining optimism as expecting good rather than bad things to happen, they found that optimistic women had a decreased rate of death and were 30 per cent less likely to die from coronary heart disease than their pessimistic counterparts.

Women who were identified as being more cynically hostile also fared worse, they had a higher rate of death and were 23 per cent more like to die from cancer-related causes said the researchers.

In a telephone interview reported by Reuters, Tindle explained that women with a high level of cynical hostility tended to agree with statements like “it’s safest to trust nobody”.

Tindle and colleagues did not compare optimism and cynical hostility directly and found their effects were independent of one another. They compared optimists to pessimists, and women with a high level of cynical hostility with those who had a low level of the trait.

“After taking into account a woman’s degree of cynical hostility, the health effects of optimism did not change,” said Tindle, explaining that the reverse was also true.

“A woman’s degree of optimism did not change the health effects of cynical hostility,” she added.

These results appeared to be more sharply pronounced among the black women in the study, who numbered nearly 8,000.

Optimistic black women had a lower rate of death compared to pessimistic women, and they also showed a 44 per cent lower risk of dying from a cancer-related death.

The black women with the highest level of cynical hostility had a higher rate of death and a 142 per cent higher rate of cancer-related death, said the researchers, who cautioned that 8,000 is not a high enough number for these findings to be considered robust.

Speculating on what might lie behind their findings, Tindle said that perhaps optimistic people tended to be healthier in general. They were less likely to be overweight, and more likely to be physically active, and less likely to smoke, she said, according to a report in Scientific American.

Tindle also mentioned research that showed optimistists were more likely to stick to diets recommended by their doctors, and they also tended to seek medical advice and follow it. They have strong social relationships and good networks, which helps them manage stress, a risk factor for heart disease, she explained.

But Tindle also pointed out that their findings only established links between personality traits, longevity and disease, they did not establish that one caused the other, despite the fact they took into account other risk factors such as age, education, income, smoking status, diabetes and depression.

“We cannot draw a causal relationship from this data,” said Tindel.

“More research is needed to determine whether treatment designed to increase optimism or decrease cynical hostility would lead to better health outcomes,” she added.

Tindle is a clinical research scholar with the University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute and the Pittsburgh Mind Body Center (PMBC), both funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“Psychological Traits and Total Mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative.”
Co-authors with Hilary Tindle were: Yue-Fan Chang, Lewis H. Kuller, Greg J. Siegle, Karen Matthews, Milagros C. Rosal, Jennifer G. Robinson, JoAnn E. Manson.
Presented 2:30 pm, Thursday, March 5, at the 67th annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society in Chicago.

Click here for American Psychosomatic Society.

Sources: University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine news release, Scientific American, Reuters.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD