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Put on a Happy Face

It might save your heart

THURSDAY, Nov. 29, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Looking on the bright side may give you more than a sunny disposition. It also may extend your life.

Harvard University researchers found that an optimistic outlook can cut your risk of heart disease almost 50 percent.

Other studies have linked heart disease to negative emotions and stress, but "this is the first study to link optimism with the onset of heart disease," says lead study author Laura Kubzansky, assistant professor of health and social behavior at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

More than 1,300 healthy white men completed a personality test designed to assess levels of optimism or pessimism. The men all were military veterans, and their average age was 60. No one with heart disease was included in the study.

The men underwent complete physicals and blood tests every three to five years. Information on most men (82 percent) was collected for 10 years, during which time 162 developed heart disease.

The researchers found that men with high levels of optimism had a 44 percent lower risk of developing heart disease than the men with high levels of pessimism.

Why optimism seems to protect against heart disease isn't known, but Kubzansky says she suspects it may act as a buffer against stress. Also, people with an optimistic outlook may take better care of themselves. The study, for instance, found that pessimistic men were more likely to have several more alcoholic drinks per day than the optimists. Kubzansky says the results probably would hold true for women too.

The findings appear in the latest issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

"We know bad things can trigger heart disease, so I'm not surprised that happy thoughts can be beneficial," but the study does have some limitations, says Dr. Dan Fisher, a cardiologist at New York University Medical Center in New York City.

First, he says the study only included older, white military veterans. In a more varied population, he says the results could vary. Also, Fisher says the time period studied might not be when heart disease is developing. He says behaviors throughout life contribute to heart disease. Most importantly, he says the study doesn't look at cause and effect. The optimistic people may have less heart disease because they're healthier in general, which also may be why they're happier. "It's hard to know which came first -- the happy or the healthy," says Fisher.

What To Do

"The power of positive thinking is not just a myth," says Kubzansky. And, she says optimism can be learned. She says a number of self-help books or counselors are available to help pessimists learn to see the glass as half full, rather than half empty.

Take this quiz to find out how optimistic you are. If you discover you're a little lacking in happy thoughts, check this article on learning optimism.

This article from the American Heart Association explains how laughter also can help fight heart disease.

SOURCES: Interviews with Laura Kubzansky, Ph.D., assistant professor of health and social behavior, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Mass.; Dan Fisher, M.D., cardiologist, New York University Medical Center, New York City; November/December 2001 Psychosomatic Medicine
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