Optimistic spouse is better for partner's health

Having an optimistic spouse predicted better mobility and fewer chronic illnesses over time, even above and beyond a person's own level of optimism, according to a University of Michigan study published in the of Journal of Psychosomatic Research.

Researchers used data from the Health and Retirement Study, a national study of American adults over age 50. The study's 3,940 adults (1,970 heterosexual couples) were tracked for four years and reported on their physical functioning (mobility, motor skills), health and number of chronic illnesses.

Past research found that social support may partly explain the link between optimism and enhanced health. Optimists are more likely to seek social support when facing difficult situations and have a larger network of friends who provide that support.

In addition, optimists engage in healthier lifestyles that simultaneously minimise health risk factors for illness, said Eric Kim, a doctoral student in the U-M Department of Psychology and the study's lead author.

"A growing body of research shows that the people in our social networks can have a profound influence on our health and well-being," he said. "This is the first study to show that someone's else optimism could be impacting your own health."

In close relationships, optimism predicts enhanced satisfaction and better cooperative problem-solving.

"So practically speaking, I can imagine an optimistic spouse encouraging his or her partner to go to the gym or eat a healthier meal because the spouse genuinely believes the behaviour will make a difference in health," Kim said. "Identifying factors that protect against declining health is important for the increasing number of older adults who face the dual threat of declining health and rising health care costs."

The study's other authors included William Chopik, a graduate student in psychology, and Jacqui Smith, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Institute for Social Research.

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