Optimism Good for Heart and Longevity

Less cardiovascular disease, fewer deaths among the cheerful, study finds

Edward Edelson

Edward Edelson

Updated on July 26, 2011

MONDAY, Aug. 10, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Women who take a darker view of life are more likely to develop heart trouble than those with a cheerful, trusting outlook, a new study indicates.

The finding comes from the Women's Health Initiative, which has tracked more than 97,000 postmenopausal American women for more than eight years.

"In addition to looking at hormones and their effect on heart disease and cancer, the study also examined psychosocial and social factors and how they affected the health of postmenopausal women," said Dr. Hilary A. Tindle, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, and lead author of a report in the Aug. 10 issue of Circulation. "Fortunately, we have this wealth of information on the psychological profile at the time they joined the study."

Optimism was measured by a questionnaire on whether a woman agreed with such statements as "In unclear times, I usually expect the best." The questions measuring cynicism asked about agreement with such statements as "It is safer to trust no one" and "I have often had to take orders from people who did not know as much as I did."

Women within the highest 25 percent of optimism scores had a 9 percent lower chance of developing heart disease and a 14 percent lower chance of dying of any cause. Women with the highest degree of cynical hostility were 16 percent more likely to die than those with the most trust in their fellow humans.

The results most likely apply to men as well as women, Tindle said, citing several previous studies, such as a 2004 Dutch report that men who were more optimistic died less often of cardiovascular disease.

There are several possible explanations for the new finding, Tindle said. Money might well be involved, since "optimism is associated with higher income and education," she said. But curiously, "the level of socioeconomic status when a woman was young was better associated with outcome than current status," Tindle said.

Beyond that, there are "three broad categories of possibilities," she said.

One is related to lifestyle factors. "Optimistic women had more stable risk profiles, with less high blood pressure and diabetes," Tindle said. "They didn't smoke as much and tended to exercise more. So their lower risk might just be associated with living healthier."

It's also possible that optimists are more likely to follow their doctors advice more faithfully. "Previous studies have shown that optimists tend to follow the diet they are told to follow," Tindle noted.

Or a woman's outlook on life might affect how she responds to stress, theb researcher said. Pessimism and cynical hostility might lead to higher blood pressure, higher heart rate and other physical risk factors, she said.

Tindle said she would like to test all of those possibilities in a controlled trial. "We would recruit individuals who are pessimistic, and try to alter their outlook and see if it affects their health," she said.

The answer probably would be "yes," Tindle said. "Even the most cynical, hostile individual can change, given the right stimulus, and I see this every day," she said.

The report was cheering news for Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

"It turns out that being optimistic is an important part of maintaining health," Steinbaum said.

The study shows that "one's view of the world and your perspective can play an important role in your health," she said. "This study demonstrates the role and significance of the connection between the mind and the body. Its just another reason to try to look at the bright side of life."

More information

Women's risk factors (including psychology) for heart disease are described by the American Heart Association.

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