Data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative study of people age 50 and older, was used to assess whether individuals with optimistic attitudes had lower incidence of stroke. The study collects information on the health of 22,000 Americans every two years. For this analysis, people with a history of stroke and those with incomplete information at follow-up were excluded, yielding a subset of 6,044 adult participants, average age 68.5 years.
Respondents were asked to rate three optimism items on a scale of one to six for a total possible score of 18 (higher being more optimistic). After adjusting for chronic illnesses, self-rated health, and relevant sociodemographic, behavioral, biological and psychological factors, dispositional optimism—the general expectation that more good things, rather than bad will occur in the future—was associated with a reduced risk of stroke. Each unit increase in optimism was associated with a 9 percent reduced risk of stroke two years later.
People who are optimistic have a positive outlook on life and may choose to have a healthier lifestyle than those who are pessimistic—and that may increase their health and well-being. Exactly why and how optimism plays a protective role against stroke, however, warrants further investigation.
This study is one in a series supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio to explore Positive Health, an emerging concept that seeks to demonstrate that in addition to health risks, people also have health assets, which can be strengthened to produce a healthier life. These health assets could include biological factors, such as high heart rate variability; subjective factors, such as optimism; and functional factors, such as a stable marriage.