Nutrition Column – is There a Connection Between Outlook on Life and Longevity?

My grandmother often lamented, "The good die young." It was a belief honed in earlier times when infants and children frequently did not live to grow up, and just about anybody could suddenly die of an infectious disease.

Is there a link between personality and health? Yes, and it seems that in contrast to my grandmother’s belief, the good tend to live longer. Good is, in this case, defined as being optimistic, well adjusted and conscientious. For example, in a 23-year study done in a small town in Ohio – after controlling for race, gender, state of health, morale and loneliness – people over age 50 who viewed aging as a positive experience lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those who viewed aging negatively. In another study of 447 people whose personality traits had been evaluated 30 years earlier, Mayo Clinic researchers found that subjects classified as optimists had half the risk of early death as those classified 30 years earlier as pessimistic or "mixed." The optimists had fewer problems as they aged, including fewer limitations, less pain and more energy.

Similarly, in a 2001 Harvard University study aptly titled, "Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full?" researchers found that men who were optimistic had less than half the incidence of heart disease and ensuing death in the 10 years following the personality assessment as those who viewed life’s events pessimistically.

These and other findings have led several researchers to conclude that negative emotions and chronic pessimism should be regarded as risk factors for heart disease. The mechanisms by which pessimism affects health are less clear. It may be that chronic frustration and anger lead to poor health habits such as smoking, excessive drinking and/or poor eating habits. In contrast, an optimistic person might be more motivated to change bad habits, or never develop them in the first place. Likewise, an optimistic person might be more likely to follow a healthy lifestyle and seek and follow medical advice when health issues arise. It also has been suggested that optimism has a positive impact on the immune system, but studies so far have been inconclusive.

Beyond optimism, Howard Friedman and others at the University of California at Riverside think the term best connected with longevity is conscientiousness. They define this as self-discipline, dependability, prudence, care and the will to achieve. Most of their findings come from a seven-decade long study of some 1,285 men and women first evaluated in a bright children study in the 1920s. These researchers see conscientiousness as being an important underpinning for optimism but having more wide-ranging effects on health-relevant activities. For example, their studies show that people classified as conscientious as children are less likely to overindulge in alcohol or smoking as adults. Also, in a study of people who developed diabetes as adults, those with high conscientiousness scores as children were able to maintain the health of their kidneys much longer than those with low scores as children.

While being excessively conscientious or optimistic can have its drawbacks, the lesson learned through these studies is that it helps to look on the bright side of life. And, even if you’re not naturally sunny, it’s never too late to start. Be as positive about life as you can. Do as much as possible to take care of yourself. Eat right. Don’t smoke. Exercise daily. And, above all enjoy life!

by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension