Valentine’s Day may be over, but here’s another reason to nourish your romantic relationship beyond the once-a-year holiday: A happy partner may mean a healthier future, new research shows.
The study out of Michigan State University revealed that having an optimistic partner may reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and cognitive decline as you age.
How exactly does a partner do all that? Basically, through being a positive influence on your lifestyle choices, according to the study authors.
"We spend a lot of time with our partners," said study author William Chopik, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, 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. You actually do experience a rosier future by living longer and staving off cognitive illnesses."
Many of the known risk factors for Alzheimer’s and dementia are related to an unhealthy lifestyle. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, known risk factors that you may have power over include:
- Head injury. Research shows that there’s a link between head injury and your risk of developing dementia in the future. Take care to wear a helmet when participating in sports, buckle your seatbelt every time you’re in the car, and “fall-proof” your home (for example by securing pesky rug corners that are easy to trip over).
Heart health. There’s strong support for the theory that your heart health impacts your brain health—that’s because your heart pumps blood through your blood vessels directly to your brain. Make heart-healthy choices to reduce your risk.
Healthy aging. Things like eating a healthy diet, avoiding excess alcohol and all tobacco, exercising your mind and body, and staying active socially are all ways to promote healthy aging.
"Maintaining a healthy weight and physical activity are large predictors,” said Dr. Chopik. “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."
The study followed 4,500 heterosexual couples for up to eight years, finding that being married to an optimistic partner may be linked to preventing cognitive decline—again, because you’re likely living in a healthier environment.
"There's a sense where optimists lead by example, and their partners follow their lead," said Dr. 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."
So how do we become more optimistic? While optimism is partially an inherited trait, there’s also some research suggesting you can train yourself to be more optimistic.
"There are studies that show people have the power to change their personalities, as long as they engage in things that make them change," said Dr. Chopik. "Part of it is wanting to change. There are also intervention programs that suggest you can build up optimism."