People who find joy, excitement, and contentment in their daily lives may be protected from cardiovascular disease.
A number of recent clinical studies demonstrate the physiological benefits of maintaining a good outlook on life, reaffirming the adage to “never underestimate the power of positive thinking.” Beware the perils of pessimism, as a sunny disposition may shine brightly as a predictor of longevity.
Optimism Promotes Longer, Healthier Life
Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania USA) reviewed data collected on 100,000 women, ages 50+, collected since 1994 as part of the Women’s Health Initiative Study. Hilary Tindle and colleagues found that optimistic women were 14 percent less likely to die from any cause (as compared to pessimists), and 30 percent less likely to die from heart disease after eight years of follow-up from the study.
Optimists also were less likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, or smoke cigarettes. Additionally, the team found that women who were “cynically hostile,” that is—highly mistrustful of other people, were 16 percent more likely to die during the study period, and 23 percent more likely to die from cancer.1
Optimism May Slash Heart Disease in Women
In women, coronary heart disease (CHD) is now shown to be impacted by attitude on life. Hilary A. Tindle, from University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (Pennsylvania, USA) and colleagues have found that optimism, and conversely—cynical or hostile attitudes, factor in to a woman’s risk of developing CHD and dying from the condition. The team studied outlook on life and incidence of CHD and resultant mortality in 97,253 postmenopausal women. They found that optimism was associated with a reduced incidence of CHD and total mortality, as compared with pessimism. Additionally, those women who were more cynical and/or hostile had an increased incidence of CHD and total mortality. 2
Optimism May Enhance Immune Function
People with optimistic attitudes may have a stronger positive immune response. In that previous studies have suggested people who are optimistic about their health tend to have better health, Suzanne C. Segerstrom, from the University of Kentucky (Kentucky, USA), and colleagues investigated the nature and mechanisms of how optimism potentially exerts this effect. The team enrolled 124 first-year law school students. Assessing them five times over six months, each subject was surveyed as to their levels of optimism and injected with a substance to summon an immune response; two days later, the subjects returned to have the injection site measured. The researchers considered a larger bump in the skin to imply a stronger immune response, thereby a marker of cell-mediated immunity. The team concluded that: “Changes in optimism correlated with changes in [cell-mediated immunity]. Likewise, changes in optimism predicted changes in positive and, to a lesser degree, negative affect, but the relationship between optimism and immunity was partially accounted for only by positive affect. This dynamic relationship between expectancies and immunity has positive implications for psychological interventions to improve health, particularly those that increase positive affect.”3
People who find joy, excitement, and contentment in their daily lives may be protected from cardiovascular disease. In that positive affect, a measure of happiness, is believed to predict cardiovascular health independent of negative affect, Karina W. Davidson, from Columbia University Medical Center (New York, USA), and colleagues examined the association between positive affect and cardiovascular events in 1,739 adults (862 men and 877 women) in the 1995 Nova Scotia Health Survey. The team found that those subjects with higher levels of positive affect were at a significantly lower risk of having a cardiovascular event over a 10-year period, even after adjusting for negative emotions. The researchers conclude that: “In this large, population-based study, increased positive affect was protective against 10-year incident [coronary heart disease], suggesting that preventive strategies may be enhanced not only by reducing depressive symptoms but also by increasing positive affect.”4
- Hilary Tindle, MD, Abstract #1085, “Psychological Traits and Morbidity and Total Mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative,” presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychomatic Society, Psychosocial Predictors of Risk and Mortality paper session, March 5, 2009.
- Tindle HA, Chang YF, Kuller LH, Manson JE, Robinson JG, Rosal MC, Siegle GJ, Matthews KA. “Optimism, Cynical Hostility, and Incident Coronary Heart Disease and Mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative.” Circulation. 2009 Aug 10. [Epub ahead of print].
- Suzanne C. Segerstrom, Sandra E. Sephton. “Optimistic Expectancies and Cell-Mediated Immunity” The Role of Positive Affect.” Psychological Science, February 24, 2010, doi: 10.1177/0956797610362061.
- Karina W. Davidson, Elizabeth Mostofsky, William Whang. “Don’t worry, be happy: positive affect and reduced 10-year incident coronary heart disease: The Canadian Nova Scotia Health Survey.” Eur. Heart J., February 17, 2010; doi: doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehp603.
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