AGING
February 25, 2020

Aging Optimists

Living with an optimist brings mental benefits that make serious, age-related memory issues less likely.

It appears there is a scientific basis for the old adage, “Happy Wife, Happy Life.” Optimism has been linked to health benefits among people who see the glass as half full, and this good health may also be contagious. Optimistic people can improve their partners' health, too, by reducing the risk factors associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers at Michigan State University followed nearly 4500 heterosexual senior couples who were enrolled in the Health and Retirement Study for up to eight years. The median age of the participants was 66. The optimism of both members of the couple was measured at the beginning of the study and their cognitive functioning was evaluated every two years during the follow-up period.

Just by being optimistic, people can improve their partners' mental health and reduce the risk factors associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

People’s optimism had a small but positive effect on two measures of their own cognitive functioning: mental status and memory. The optimism expressed by their partner also had a positive effect on those measures.

“When your partner is optimistic and healthy, it can translate to similar outcomes in your own life,” William Chopik, a co-author of the study, said in a statement.

A positive outlook in one person can influence their partner’s cognitive functioning in several ways, the researchers said. Greater optimism is associated with healthy behaviors like eating healthier food and exercising more, which predict higher cognitive functioning.

Optimistic people may encourage their partners to eat better and exercise, and serve as a model of good health habits. And because people spend a lot of time with their partner, they may adopt these healthy behaviors and optimistic mindsets for themselves. “There’s a sense that optimists lead by example, and their partners follow their lead,” said Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State.

Shared Memories Help Couples Remember
While some studies have found people can be jealous of their partner’s good qualities, others have found being optimistic is associated with perceiving your relationship in a positive light, he added. Optimists will remember positive details about the relationship.

Couples can combine memories to make recalling things easier. Couples who divide up responsibilities and give each other cues do better on a recall task, compared to couples who don’t. “When partners share recall, richer details about the shared memory can emerge,” Jeewon Oh, corresponding author on the study, told TheDoctor.

“We need more studies to understand exactly how this process is unfolding,” said Oh, a graduate student in psychology at Michigan State. A larger, more representative sample of older adults would also make stronger conclusions about how big an effect optimism has on cognitive functioning.

The study is published in the Journal of Personality.

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