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Dispositional optimism and health behaviour in community-dwelling older people:

Associations with healthy ageing

Andrew Steptoe, Caroline Wright, Sabine R. Kunz-Ebrecht & Steve Liffe
University College London

Published in 'British Journal of Health Psychology', 11, 71-84, 2006

The aim of this study was to investigate the relationship between optimism and healthy ageing, and whether or not healthy behaviours, such as regular physical exercise, not smoking, and moderate alcohol consumption, acted as mediators.  Participants were recruited from two general practices in the London area and consisted of 72 women and 56 men, between the ages of 65 and 80 years, who had no history of life-threatening psychological or physical ill health within the previous 5-year period.  The researchers measured optimism and pessimism using the Life Orientation Test and healthy ageing was assessed through a set of questionnaires, including an inventory on physical health status, and self-reported measures on smoking, alcohol consumption, frequency of physical activity, self-rated health perceptions, and negative affect.

The findings indicated that more optimistic participants engaged in more healthy behaviours, reporting lower levels of smoking and alcohol consumption in both men and women.  However, a significant positive association between optimism and frequency of physical activity was only found among the female participants.  Nevertheless, higher optimism was positively related to more healthy behaviour choices in the majority and this was regardless of socio-demographic factors, such as area deprivation, and chronic illness.

There was also a positive relationship between optimism and physical health status and this was not affected by socio-demographic factors, clinical condition or the experience of negative emotions.  More optimistic participants also rated their own health to be extremely good, compared to those with high levels of pessimism who rated their health as being relatively poor.  Again, the relationship held when chronic illness was taken into consideration but was not mediated by healthy behaviours, such as not smoking or drinking alcohol, and exercising regularly.

Overall, optimists in a community population of older adults smoke less, drink less alcohol, and participate in more regular physical activity compared to their pessimistic counterparts.  They are also physically healthier and perceive their own health to be relatively good in comparison to people with lower optimism who rate their health to be poorer.

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