There’s much to be grateful for in giving thanks


Elderly may harvest benefits from the attitude alone

3 min read

Don’t limit it to Thanksgiving. Conscious gratitude may help older adults live longer, according to a new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Prior research has shown an association between gratitude and lower risk of mental distress and greater emotional and social well-being. However, its association with physical health is less understood,” said lead author Ying Chen, research scientist in the Department of Epidemiology. “Our study provides the first empirical evidence on this topic, suggesting that experiencing grateful affect may increase longevity among older adults.”

The study was published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry.

The researchers used data from the Nurses’ Health Study to assess levels of gratitude and mortality among 49,275 older women. In 2016, participants, whose average age was 79, completed a six-item Gratitude Questionnaire in which they provided scores to agree or disagree with statements such as “I have so much in life to be thankful for” and “If I had to list everything that I felt grateful for, it would be a very long list.” In 2019, the researchers followed up to identify deaths among the study population, noting all-cause mortality as well as specific causes such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, neurodegenerative disease, infection, and injury. They observed 4,608 deaths over the course of the study period; of the specific causes studied, cardiovascular disease was most common.

The study found that participants whose Gratitude Questionnaire scores were in the highest tertile had a 9 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality over the following four years than those who scored in the bottom tertile. Gratitude appeared protective against every specific cause of mortality studied, most significantly against cardiovascular disease.

According to the researchers, to most accurately quantify gratitude’s impact on mortality, the study took a “conservative approach” in controlling for sociodemographic data, health history, and lifestyle factors, including things such as social participation, religious involvement, and optimism, which often overlap with gratitude.

“Prior research indicates that there are ways of intentionally fostering gratitude, such as writing down or discussing what you are grateful for a few times a week,” said Chen. “Promoting healthy aging is a public health priority, and we hope further studies will improve our understanding of gratitude as psychological resource for enhancing longevity.” 

Other Harvard Chan authors were Olivia Okereke, Henning Tiemeier, Laura Kubzansky, and Tyler VanderWeele.

The study was funded by the Templeton Foundation (grant 61075) and the National Institutes of Health (grant CA222147).

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