Look on the bright side

An optimistic outlook on life could result in a longer and healthier life, Mayo Clinic researchers have found in a 30-year patient study. In what might be called the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy, researchers found that the pessimistic group of patients had a 19 percent 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, M.D., a Mayo Clinic psychiatrist and lead author of the study.

“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.”

Just forget about that last part. 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 usually explain the causes of life’s events) – and categorizes them as either optimists, pessimists or mixed..

The rest warelatively easy, even by a pessimist’s standards. By identifying which patients were alive 30 years later, the researchers were able to study “explanatory style” as a risk factor for early death. Age and sex were factored into the results, and the researchers found that the optimistic group’s “observed survival” was significantly better than expected.

Although the researchers said they could not explain how a pessimistic style acts as a risk factor for early death, they speculate that it could be simply because optimists are less likely to develop depression and “learned helplessness”, and are more positive in seeking medical help.