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Study: Survival expectations predict mental and physical health

“What are your chances of living to age 35?” A new study by a Northeastern University researcher exploring that singular question has found that ado­les­cents who express uncer­tainty about living past young adult­hood are more likely than optimistic individuals to attempt suicide more than a decade later.

The study’s findings, which were reported on Wednesday in the open-access scientific journal PLoS ONE, show this question is also highly predictive of other future adult outcomes.

Quynh Nguyen, lead author and data ana­lyst for the Insti­tute on Urban Health Research in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, analyzed data collected from a nationally representative cohort of 19,000 adolescents in grades 7 through 12 across genders, cultures, races and socioeconomic status. The teens were sur­veyed in the National Lon­gi­tu­dinal Study of Ado­les­cent Health in 1995 and then again in 2008. That study was conducted by the Carolina Population Center and funded by the National Institutes of Health and 23 other federal agencies and foundations.

Nguyen found that ado­les­cents who report an expectation of 50 percent chance or less of living past age 35 are more likely to attempt suicide, struggle with drinking and use drugs and smoke more often as adults than their more optimistic peers.

Given its predictive success, Nguyen said that asking a teen about his or her chances of living to age 35 could prove be a useful risk assessment tool in youth counseling sessions.

“Bleak perceptions about the future in adolescence may encourage the development of thought patterns in which negative events are seen as inevitable and problems are seen as insoluble,” Nguyen explained. “When you give up hope for the future, you may not see the point of trying; you may be more reckless with yourself and with others.” 

Providing health living environments for ado­les­cents in which they can thrive could boost their sur­vival expec­ta­tions, she said.

“People’s expectations of the future can influence their decision-making,” Nguyen explained. “As adults, we can be role models to youth in our communities. We can connect youth with resources and experiences and safe environments that enable them to pursue their goals.”

The study dove­tails with Northeastern’s focus on use-inspired research that solves global chal­lenges in health, secu­rity and sus­tain­ability.