A recent study by Michigan State University (MSU) researchers confirms old adages about happy spouses leading to happy lives. According to the study, optimism in both people with dementia and their partners is linked to improved health, well-being and cognitive functioning over their lifespan.
Previous research has shown that a person’s social network, and particularly romantic partners, can have a significant impact on health and cognition later in life. Spouses often share similar cognitive trajectories over time, and some couples also coordinate their memories to make recall easier—for example, dividing responsibility in recall tasks by sharing information and prompting one another to remember.
“We spend a lot of time with our partners,” explained study co-author William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at MSU, in a news release. “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.”
The study was co-authored by Chopik and MSU graduate student Jeewon Oh, as well as research scientist Eric Kim from the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The researchers analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, a national study that followed the lives of 4,457 heterosexual couples over age 50 for eight years assessing optimism and cognition, to draw their conclusions.
Their results suggest that having a highly optimistic partner can be beneficial for maintaining cognitive functioning and lowering the risk of dementia. The study highlights the importance of spousal relationships when considering the potential for late-life cognitive decline.
“There’s a sense where optimists lead by example, and their partners follow their lead,” said Chopik. “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.”
While the results are encouraging, they mostly reinforce the science behind the experiences of couples that are already optimistic by nature. However, Chopik suggests that learning to change might be possible for those looking to improve the lives of themselves and their partners.
“There are studies that show people have the power to change their personalities, as long as they engage in things that make them change,” Chopik explains. “Part of it is wanting to change.”