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Optimism is associated with healthier heart in new study — but with an important caveat

Being an optimist — envisioning your future as a glass that’s half full rather than half empty — may be good for your heart, according to a study published in the current issue of Health Behavior & Policy Review.

Specifically, the study, which analyzed data collected from 5,100 adults aged 45 to 84 over an 11-year period, found that people with the highest levels of optimism were twice as likely as their most pessimistic peers to have a healthy heart.

The association remained even after adjusting for such factors as age, sex, race, ethnicity, marital status, education, income, health insurance status and poor mental health.

This finding suggests, say the study’s authors, that strategies to prevent heart disease should include psychological interventions that help people develop a more positive outlook on life.

That seems a rather optimistic idea in and of itself — although the authors do point out that other research indicates that up to 40 percent of the individual variance in happiness may be determined by human volition.

Study details

For their study, a multi-institutional team of researchers, led by Rosalba Hernandez, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois, analyzed data collected from participants in the ongoing Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. They looked specifically at seven factors that have an impact on cardiovascular health: smoking status, diet, physical activity, body mass index (BMI), blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Measuring and improving these seven factors are the focus of the American Heart Association “Life’s Simple 7” public awareness campaign.

Data was also collected — through questionnaires — about the participants’ mental health and levels of optimism.

The participants were both racially and ethnically diverse (38 percent white, 28 percent African-American, 22 percent Hispanic/Latino and 12 percent Chinese).

The researchers scored each measurement of the seven risk factors as poor (0 points), intermediate (1 point) or ideal (2 points). Those points were then added up to give an overall score (from 0 to 14) for each individual. The higher the participant’s overall score, the healthier his or her cardiovascular system.

The researchers then correlated the participants’ overall scores with their levels of optimism. They found that the people who were the most optimistic (who scored in the upper quartile of the study’s participants) were 50 percent more likely to have a cardiovascular health score in the intermediate range and 75 percent more likely to have one in the ideal range than those who were the least optimistic (who scored in the lowest quartile).

The most optimistic of the participants also had significantly better blood sugar and cholesterol levels than their pessimistic peers. In addition, they were more physically active, had healthier BMIs and were less likely to smoke.

Major caveat

This isn’t the only research that has linked optimism to better health, including better cardiovascular health. A 2012 Harvard University study found, for example, that an optimistic outlook is associated with a 50 percent reduction in the risk of heart disease and stroke. And another study, involving more than 8,000 British civil servants, also reported that people who expressed feeling positive about their careers and their family (but not about their standard of living) had a lower risk of heart disease.

But all of these studies — including the current one — have identified only an association between optimism and a healthier heart. None proves that being optimistic causes better cardiovascular health. As the current study’s authors themselves point out, “[I]t is possible that individuals are more optimistic because they are healthier.”

To this always-skeptical reader of studies, that seems like a rather strong possibility.

As I’ve written here before, some people (not, I should add, the authors of the current study) like to use findings from studies like this one to make the claim that people who become seriously ill do so because of their own negative thoughts — and that if they would only adopt a more “positive attitude,” they could cure themselves of their illness, no matter how serious it is.

That’s nonsense, of course. And cruel.

Indeed, at least one approach to positive thinking — telling people to repeat a positive affirmation, such as “I am a lovable person,” many times — has been found to actually backfire, leaving some individuals, particularly those with low self-esteem, feeling worse about themselves and their situation.

You’ll find an abstract of the current study online, but the full study is behind a paywall.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 01/14/2015 - 12:55 pm.

    Remarkably, no hearts studied

    Your skeptical attitude is much appreciated. This study is remarkable because it concludes that heart health benefits from optimism, but it never measures anybody’s heart!

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 01/14/2015 - 05:39 pm.

    It Seems to Me that the Analysis Used in this Study

    Likely has cause and effect completely reversed.

    As a normally very optimistic person over my previous 60 years, I was quite surprised to see how a recent condition that temporarily reduced my mobility and caused considerable level 6-9 pain for a period of weeks,…

    this in someone with a very high threshold of pain,…

    changed my outlook and made me far LESS optimistic and far MORE cranky than was my personal norm.

    I would previously have predicted that my basic optimism would have allowed me to rise above such pain, and work around it or through it without affecting my outlook on life but it didn’t (at least not much).

    Thankfully, this condition has largely resolved and my activity levels and mood are returning to what I consider to be normal,…

    but I can’t help but think that, in studies such as these, it’s likely we need to explore what underlying health issues (which may have very subtle symptoms) may be at least partially responsible for the darker mood and outlook of those who measure as less optimistic,…

    and realize that those who feel well, have plenty of energy every day, and have sufficient mobility to do what they want are far more likely to feel optimistic than those who lack those things.

    I’m convinced that chronic, undiagnosed, unaddressed, low-grade health difficulties can, and likely DO cause a darker psychological outlook and perhaps even depression and anxiety in a fairly large number of people whose outlook would improve if those health issues were addressed.

    Perhaps we also need to realize that there are a very few outliers who, despite many disabilities and chronic pain manage an optimistic outlook,…

    but I suspect those folk either have excellent caregivers, have come out the other side of a darker period as they adjusted to their pain and disabilities, or have a deep faith which allows them to look beyond themselves and their daily lives for their sense of well being.

    Meanwhile, those “optimistic” folk who have never suffered debilitating health issues should not be too quick to pat themselves on the back for their optimism or credit it for their health. It’s quite possible that their time of pain and struggle may yet arrive and that their optimism will, in ways mostly beyond their control, evaporate when that time arrives.

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