Pessimism hurts the heart

August 20, 2009 by  

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dark-side-of-lifeWe all know that negative emotions can badly affect heart health. A recent study indicates that one’s state of mind – positive or negative thinking – also plays a role in cardiovascular health. The study looked at 97,000 women of postmenopausal age who were participants in the 15-year Women’s Health Initiative study. The participants had to complete a survey with questions that assess their level of optimism, hostility and cynicism.

The study results showed that a positive attitude has some beneficial effects on cardiovascular health and lower the risk of death. However, a negative attitude has exactly the opposite effect increased risk for heart disease and mortality. To give some specifics, here are the results during 8 years of follow up:

  • The optimists (those who scored highest for optimism) had a 9% lower risk for having heart disease and a 14% lower overall risk of mortality than the pessimists (those who scored lowest for optimism).
  • The cynics (those with a high degree of hostility and cynicism) were 16% more likely to die than those who scored lowest for hostility and cynicism. However, the risk of heart disease seems to be the same for both groups.

The difference in health outcomes between those with positive attitude vs. those with negative attitude is more dramatic in African-American women compared to white women.

Optimism is not only good for the health, it also prolongs life.

So why are some people optimistic and some pessimistic?

The study found that

  • The optimists tend to be younger, residing in Western US, employed, have higher education and income, have health insurance coverage and attend church.
  • Those pessimists tend to have hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes. They also tend to smoke, be depressive, overweight and sedentary.

So what is the mechanism behind the link between a positive attitude and heart health? Researchers agree that the optimism has some health benefits but cannot explain the how’s and the why’s

One thing is for sure, negative thinkers tend to make poorer lifestyle choices than positive thinkers.

According to psychologist Barry J. Jacobs, American Heart Association spokesperson

“Someone who believes that life is not worth living probably isn’t the type of person who goes to the gym three times a week.”

So are pessimists doomed to a life of disease and early death? Actually no. There are ways to help people overcome negative attitudes and develop coping skills against depression and hostility. According to psychiatrist Dr. Redford Williams, director of the Duke University Medical Center’s Behavioral Medicine Research Center

“People can learn these skills, and more and more research is showing that it can not only improve your life but save it.”

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