Spouses also play an essential role in people’s health, especially in older adulthood. Yet, whether a spouse’s optimism is associated with an individual’s cognitive functioning is understudied.
In a new study, scientists from Michigan State University examined this question.
Scientists found that those who are optimistic, contribute to the health of their partners, staving off the risk factors leading to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and cognitive decline as they grow old together.
William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology and co-author of the study, said, “We spend a lot of time with our partners. They might encourage us to exercise, eat healthier, or remind us to take our medicine. When your partner is optimistic and healthy, it can translate to similar outcomes in your own life. You do experience a rosier future by living longer and staving off cognitive illnesses.”
For the study, scientists followed nearly 4,500 heterosexual couples from the Health and Retirement Study for up to eight years. Optimism was assessed at baseline, and cognition was measured every two years, with up to five repeated assessments of cognition data over the 8‐year follow‐up period.
Scientists observed a potential link between being married to an optimistic person and preventing the onset of cognitive decline, thanks to a healthier environment at home.
An optimistic partner may encourage eating a salad or work out together to develop a healthier lifestyle. For instance, if you quit smoking or begin working out, your spouse is near sticking to this same pattern within a few weeks and months.
Chopik said, “We found that when you look at the risk factors for what predicts things like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, a lot of them are things like living a healthy lifestyle. Maintaining a healthy weight and physical activity are large predictors. There are some physiological markers, as well. It looks like people who are married to optimists tend to score better on all of those metrics.”
“There’s a sense where optimists lead by example, and their partners follow their lead. While there’s some research on people being jealous of their partner’s good qualities or on having bad reactions to someone trying to control you, it is balanced with other research that shows being optimistic is associated with perceiving your relationship in a positive light.”
The research also indicated that when couples recall shared experiences, richer details from the memories emerge.
Chopik explained, “A recent example was Google’s tearjerker Super Bowl ad, “Loretta,” in which an elderly man uses his Google Assistant to help him remember details about his late wife.”
“The things he was recollecting were positive things about his partner. There is science behind the Google ad. Part of the types of memories being recalled were positive aspects of their relationship and personalities.”
Chopik said, “There are studies that show people have the power to change their personalities, as long as they engage in things that make them change. Part of it is wanting to change. There are also intervention programs that suggest you can build up optimism.”
This study is published in the Journal of Personality.