Mayo Clinic Study Finds Optimistic People Live Longer

February 16, 2000

New York (MedscapeWire) Feb 16 — An optimistic outlook on life could result in a longer and healthier life, Mayo Clinic researchers found in a 30-year patient study.

The researchers found that the pessimistic group of patients had a 19% increase in the risk of death when comparing their expected life span with their actual life.

The results could lead to further advances that can help physicians working with patients to change and perhaps lengthen their lives and improve their health, says Toshihiko Maruta, MD, a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist and lead author of the study that appears in the February issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

"It confirmed our common-sense belief," says Dr. Maruta. "It tells us that mind and body are linked and that attitude has an impact on the final outcome, death."

Mayo Clinic researchers surveyed patients in 1994 who had taken the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) at Mayo Clinic between 1962 and 1965. The test has an Optimism-Pessimism scale that grades the explanatory style of the patients — how people habitually explain the causes of life's events — and categorizes them as either optimists, pessimists, or mixed based on how they answer certain questions.

By identifying which patients were alive 30 years later, the researchers were able to study explanatory style as a risk factor for early death. The final study group consisted of 839 patients who lived in Olmsted County, where Mayo Clinic is located.

The study patients (529 women and 310 men) were classified as 124 as optimistic, 518 as mixed, and 197 as pessimistic. Age and sex were factored into the results. The researchers compared the expected with actual survival rates and found that the optimistic group's observed survival was significantly better than expected. And they found a 19% increase in risk of death among the pessimistic group.

The researchers said they could not definitively explain how a pessimistic style acts as a risk factor for early death. It could be through the mind; optimists are less likely to develop depression and learned helplessness. It could be through the attitude toward medical care; optimists might be more positive in seeking and receiving medical help, with fewer tendencies to self-blame and catastrophic thinking.

In an accompanying editorial, Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, says, "Pessimism is identifiable early in life and changeable. So it is possible that individuals at specific physical risk might enter into brief programs that stably change their thinking about bad events and so lower their risk for physical illness and even death."

The researchers concur, saying in their article, "It would be an exciting clinical endeavor to see if certain clinical interventions can meaningfully move a patient's explanatory style toward the optimistic pole with the goal of improving treatment response, as Seligman's work has suggested."