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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Study Reveals How Attitude Can Cut Years

WASHINGTON -- People who tend to see their personal difficulties in catastrophic terms are more likely to die young than others, a long-term psychology study suggests.

Researchers found that a tendency to "catastrophize" -- that is, to see bad things that happen to you as part of a global pattern of evil and pain that undermines everyone -- was linked to an increased risk of dying before the age of 65, especially in men. For example, men who "catastrophize" appear 25 percent more likely than other men to die before age 65, and are much more likely to die by accident or suicide, researchers found.

An approach to life "in which people catastrophize about bad events ... foreshadows untimely death decades later," concluded a research team headed by University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson. The same correlation was not found in people who habitually explain life's difficulties in other ways, such as by blaming themselves, researchers said.

In speculating about why "catastrophizing" about bad events might be hazardous, researchers noted that it is often related to poor problem-solving, social estrangement and risky decision-making.

The findings are based on data from the historic Terman Life-Cycle Study, in which a group of more than 1,500 healthy California schoolchildren has been followed since 1921. In 1936 and 1940, the group was questioned in detail about difficult life experiences and their own personalities.

Researchers studied the way the individuals explained and reacted to experiences such as disappointments, failures, losses, bereavements and bad relationships. They sought correlations between those attitudes and the timing and causes of death. About half of those in the original group have died.

The study was conducted by a team from Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, Children's Hospital of Michigan, La Sierra University and the University of California at Riverside. They reported results in the journal Psychological Science.

In another study, researchers from Ohio State University reported that the possible harm associated with a pessimistic outlook -- increased anxiety, stress, depression and ill health -- appears greater than the protective good conferred by an optimistic outlook.

"It may be more important that you're not pessimistic than that you are optimistic," said research psychologist Susan Robinson-Whelen, the study's lead author, now at the Houston Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Texas. The study is part of a larger project investigating the effect of stress on adults taking care of a sick family member. The results were published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.