Healthy Outlook Women Who See the Glass Half Full Live Longer, Pitt Study Finds

Issue Date: 
March 16, 2009
Hilary TindleHilary Tindle

In a large study of postmenopausal women, optimists had decreased rates of death and were less likely to be hypertensive, diabetic, and smokers than pessimists, according to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. In addition, women identified as highly cynically hostile, meaning they were highly mistrustful of other people, had increased rates of death when compared to their less cynically hostile counterparts. The results of the research were presented during the American Psychosomatic Society’s 67th annual meeting in Chicago in early March.

The study, led by Hilary Tindle, assistant professor of medicine in the Pitt School of Medicine’s Division of Internal Medicine, analyzed data from nearly 100,000 women in the Women’s Health Initiative, a National Institutes of Health-funded study that has been following women ages 50 and older since 1994.

Optimism was defined as the expectation that good, rather than bad, things will happen. Female optimists in the group surveyed had a decreased rate of death and were 30 percent less likely to die from coronary heart disease than were pessimists. Those identified as being more cynically hostile had a higher rate of death and were 23 percent more likely to die from a cancer-related condition.

In addition, optimism and cynical hostility were not directly compared. Rather, optimists were compared to pessimists, while women with a high degree of cynical hostility were compared to those with a low degree of cynical hostility.

“The effects of optimism and cynical hostility were independent of one another. After taking into account a woman’s degree of cynical hostility, the health effects of optimism did not change. The reverse also was true. A woman’s degree of optimism did not change the health effects of cynical hostility,” said Tindle.

Interestingly, results for optimism and cynical hostility appeared more pronounced in the almost 8,000 Black women surveyed. Optimistic Black women had a lower rate of death and a 44 percent reduction in risk of cancer-related death. Alternatively, the most cynically hostile Black women had a higher rate of death and a 142 percent increase in risk of cancer-related death. Tindle notes these results need to be interpreted with caution because of the low number of Black women surveyed.

“It’s important to note that while this study controlled for other risk factors, including age, education, income level, smoking, diabetes, and depressive symptoms, among others, we cannot draw a causal relationship from this data,” said Tindle. “The results demonstrate an association between these psychological factors and length of life. More research is needed to determine whether treatment designed to increase optimism or decrease cynical hostility would lead to better health outcomes.”

Tindle is a clinical research scholar with the University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute and the Pittsburgh Mind Body Center (PMBC), both National Institutes of Health-funded organizations. The PMBC is jointly based at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

Other Pitt coauthors of the study include Yue-Fan Chang, an assistant professor in Pitt’s Department of Statistics and School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry; Greg J. Siegle, a professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine; and Karen Matthews, PMBC director. Other coauthors are based at the University of Massachusetts, University of Iowa, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School.