A new study examining the link between optimism and heart health in more than 5,100 middle-aged to elderly American adults has found that having an optimistic outlook on life is not just good for your mental health, it’s good for your physical health too.
Led by Rosalba Hernandez, professor of social work at the University of Illinois in the US, the team gathered volunteers between the ages of 45 and 84, who represented a range of different backgrounds, including 38 percent white, 28 percent African-American, 22 percent Hispanic/Latino and 12 percent Chinese.
The volunteers had their cardiovascular health measured according to seven metrics: blood pressure, body mass index, fasting plasma glucose and serum cholesterol levels, dietary intake, physical activity and tobacco use. These are the same measurements used by the American Heart Association to define a healthy or sick heart.
Volunteers were given a score of 0 (poor), 1 (intermediate), or 2 (ideal) points for each of these metrics, to come up with an overall health score. The participants were also asked to fill out surveys relating to their mental health, other areas of physical health - such as instance of arthritis, liver and kidney disease, and their own perceived levels of optimism. Factors such as diet, physical activity, body mass index, smoking, blood sugar, and total cholesterol were all taken into consideration.
According to the paper published in Health Behaviour and Policy Review, the team found that "participants in the highest quartile of optimism were more likely to have intermediate and ideal cardiovascular health when compared to the least optimistic group”. The people who were rated as the most optimistic of the group were 50 percent more likely to get an intermediate health score and up to 76 percent more likely to have an ideal score.
"Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts,” said Hernandez in the press release. "This association remains significant, even after adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and poor mental health.”
The team also found that the optimistic participants had significantly better blood sugar and cholesterol levels from their pessimistic peers. It was found that they were more likely to be physically active, have more ideal body mass indexes and were less likely to smoke.
"At the population level, even this moderate difference in cardiovascular health translates into a significant reduction in death rates," Hernandez said. "This evidence, which is hypothesised to occur through a biobehavioural mechanism, suggests that prevention strategies that target modification of psychological well-being - e.g., optimism - may be a potential avenue for the American Health Association to reach its goal of improving Americans' cardiovascular health by 20 percent before 2020.”
The researchers have received further data for their study thanks to a separate, ongoing project called the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, which is looking at instances of cardiovascular disease in 6,000 people across America. Launched in mid-2,000, this study followed its participants for 11 years, collecting data every couple of years.
Hernandez will now combine data from the two studies to get an even more detailed picture of the link between optimism and cardiovascular health, which she plans to publish the results of later this year.