The risk of stroke and heart problems is reduced with an optimistic attitude in older adults. The study found that a predominantly pessimistic outlook on life raises one’s risk of death from heart disease. The study involved nearly 3,000 participants tracked for 11 years.
The researchers found that the most pessimistic participants were twice as likely to die from heart disease, compared to those who were the least pessimistic. Although pessimism took a negative toll on the heart, optimism was not found to improve heart health.
Lead author Dr. Mikko Pankalainen explained, “Pessimism seems to be quite a significant risk factor for death from coronary heart disease, both in men and women, even after adjustments for the well-known classical risk factors of cardiovascular disease. This finding suggests that our knowledge about the connection between optimism and physical health is far from complete.”
“In the future, it might be a very useful tool, together with the other known risk factors — such as smoking, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol — to determine the risk of dying from heart disease,” continued Dr. Pankalainen.
Pessimism raises the levels of inflammatory hormones and stress hormones which can negatively impact the heart. Although the study doesn’t suggest that being happy will save your heart, the findings demonstrate that having a negative attitude definitely puts your heart at risk.
A previous study found that optimists may have significantly better cardiovascular health. Lead author of the study Rosalba Hernandez explained, “Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health, compared to their more pessimistic counterparts. This association remains significant, even after adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and poor mental health.”
Cardiovascular health was measured using seven criteria: blood pressure, body mass index, fasting plasma glucose and serum cholesterol levels, dietary intake, physical activity, and tobacco use. Known as the Simple 7, these criteria are used by the American Heart Association (AHA) for assessing heart health.
The participants were also surveyed about their mental health, levels of optimism, and physical health.
The researchers found that the most optimistic participants were 50 to 76 percent more likely to have total health scores in the intermediate or ideal ranges. The link between optimism and cardiovascular health was even stronger when the results were adjusted for socio-demographic factors. The most optimistic participants were twice as likely to have an ideal heart health.
Hernandez added, “At the population level, even this moderate difference in cardiovascular health translates into a significant reduction in death rates. 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 AHA to reach its goal of improving Americans’ cardiovascular health by 20 percent before 2020.”
The study demonstrates that having a positive outlook on life can go a long way in improving heart health.