Vitality

Don't Worry, Be Happy: Optimism Linked To Better Heart Health

optimistic
People who maintained an optimistic outlook on life proved to have better cardiovascular health than those who were more pessimistic. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Heart health may be helped by having an optimistic view, according to a new study out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that examined cardiovascular health in over 5,100 adults.

The researchers measured the participants’ blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), fasting plasma glucose and serum cholesterol levels — along with dietary intake, physical activity, and tobacco use — rating each either 0, 1, or 2 (poor, intermediate, or ideal, respectively). The numbers were added together to create the overall cardiovascular health score, a number somewhere between 0 and 14. The participants were also asked to complete surveys that measured their mental health, optimism, and physical health.

The authors found that people who were more optimistic were 50 percent more likely to have health scores in the intermediate range — and 76 percent more likely to have health scores in the ideal range. 

“Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts,” said Rosalba Hernandez, lead author of the study, in a press release. “This association remains significant, even after adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and poor mental health.”

Optimistic people had better blood sugar and total cholesterol levels, and were overall more physically active and less likely to smoke. These results might have far-reaching implications, as even a small difference in a cardiovascular health score can dramatically decrease a person’s risk for stroke.

“At the population level, even this moderate difference in cardiovascular health translates into a significant reduction in death rates,” Hernandez said in the press release. “This evidence, which is hypothesized to occur through a biobehavioral mechanism, suggests that prevention strategies that target modification of psychological well-being — e.g., optimism — may be a potential avenue for [the American Heart Association] to reach its goal of improving Americans’ cardiovascular health by 20 percent before 2020.”

Optimism typically involves a dual perspective: maintaining a sense of hope, as well as the notion that we live in “the best of all possible worlds.” Optimistic people tend to see the good in even bad situations, which allows them to let go of extra weight and stresses, and focus on the happy things.

But what is it about optimism that improves health? While more cynical people may view an upbeat demeanor as naive, there’s some real value in positivity. Researchers have examined the impact of optimism on health in the past, and found that people with a positive outlook showed better heart health, immunity, pregnancy outcomes, pain tolerance, and improved recovery from cancer. Optimism tends to foster a desire to cope with exterior stresses, and pushes people to reach out for social support and better their situation. As a result, optimistic people find ways to avoid or negate their stress levels; and as we know, stress can take a heavy toll on our heart health and immune system.

Researchers wrote that in one experiment completed on women with breast cancer, they found “optimistic women presented coping strategies characterized by acceptance of the situation, emphasis of the positive aspects, and attempts to alleviate their condition with a sense of humor, showing evident positive results on their quality of life. In contrast, the pessimistic women reacted with sentiments of impotence and loss of hope, which significantly worsened their quality of life.”

Whether positivity clashes with your philosophical view of life, it may be worth it to occasionally lighten up a little. Your heart will thank you for it.

Source: Hernandez R, Kershaw K, Siddique J, Boehm J, Kubzansky L, Diez-Roux A. “Optimism and Cardiovascular Health: Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Health Behavior and Policy Review, 2015.

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