A new study by researchers at the University of Michigan has found that higher optimism was associated with lower risk of stroke among a study sample of 6,044 adults age 50 and over, who were followed for 2 years.
This is the first study to measure the correlation between optimism and stoke, according to the researchers.
In addition, the researchers found that optimism was able to blunt the negative impact of other psychological factors, such as anxiety, depression, and neuroticism.
The study, Dispositional Optimism Protects Older Adults From Stroke, by Eric S. Kim, MS, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan, and colleagues, was published in the July 21, 2011 issue of Stroke, a journal of the American Heart Association.
In the study, Kim and colleagues reviewed data on 6,044 adults (2,542 men and 3,502 women), comprising a subset of data collected in the national Health and Retirement Study, an ongoing study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health that surveys over 22,000 Americans ages 50 and over every two years. The individuals included in this study had not had a stroke at the time when the study began.
The researchers determined the study participants’ levels of optimism at the beginning of the study based on their responses to a modified “Life Orientation Test,” a commonly used assessment tool, using a scale that ranged from 3 to 18 points.
The analysis was then adjusted for self-rated health, relevant socio-demographic, behavioral, biological, and psychological factors, and chronic illness.
The study data showed that there were 88 cases of stroke over a two-year follow-up period.
The researchers analyzed the data to determine whether higher optimism was associated with a lower incidence of stroke.
After adjusting for age, gender, chronic illness, and self-rated health, researchers found that with every point increase in the optimism scale there was a 9% decrease in acute stroke risk over the two-year period.
In addition, while negative psychological factors, including anxiety, depression, negative affect, and neuroticism were found to be significantly associated with stroke, the researchers found that optimism was able to blunt their impact.
“The protective effect of optimism remained significant in all models, implying that optimism protects against stroke above and beyond the effects of the negative psychological factors tested,” Kim and his colleagues concluded.
“Optimism seems to have a swift impact on stroke,” Kim also noted, referring to the fact that they had followed the subjects for only two years.
In addition to ruling out a potential effect of absence of the other negative psychological factors referenced above, Kim and colleagues also adjusted to measure for potential impacts of a number of other factors. To do this they analyzed the data using five different models, where the core model consisted of age, gender, chronic illness, and self-rated health, and each succeeding model added covariates to the core, as follows:
- Model 2 = core model plus additional sociodemographics (race/ethnicity, marital status, educational degree);
- Model 3 = core model plus health behaviors (current smoker, exercise, alcohol use);
- Model 4 = core model plus metabolic factors (diabetes, body mass index); and
- Model 5 = core model plus cardiovascular factors (systolic/diastolic blood pressure, hypertension, heart disease)
They found that the correlation between optimism and lowered stroke risk remained significant in all five models, regardless of which covariates were included.
Implications of the Study
While previous studies have found links between low pessimism and temporary positive outlook and lower stroke risk, and between optimism and “a range of health benefits, including cardiovascular outcome,” principal author Kim said, nevertheless this study is the first to examine the relationship between optimism and stroke among older adults in a large and nationally representative sample, according to the authors.
“People have known intuitively that positive psychological outlooks can enhance health outcomes. Research is finally examining those questions,” Kim told MedPage Today.
Researchers do not know exactly how optimism works to lower risk of stroke. “More studies are needed to further understand the mechanisms that facilitate the protective role of optimism on stroke,” Kim and colleagues wrote.
They suggest that being optimistic may have a protective effect because optimistic people tend to make healthy behavior choices, such as exercising, eating a healthy diet, or taking vitamins. Some research also indicates that positive thinking may have a biological effect as well.
The researchers made a distinction between optimism and other types of positivity or happiness. “Happiness and joy, for example, can be temporary, but optimism is broader and will show up from day to day and action to action and is more systemic,” Kim said.
The study authors also suggest that if further research continues to point to the protective role of optimism against stroke, then there is a need for further research to assess how “optimism interventions” can supplement current “stroke protocol.”
The authors note that other studies show that only a portion of optimism is genetic, which raises the question of whether interventions can induce or create optimism, to beneficial effect.
The full study report, Dispositional Optimism Protects Older Adults From Stroke, is available in the July 21, 2011 issue of Stroke, a journal of the American Heart Association.
See also our previous report on: Motivational Talk Therapy After Stoke May Increase Chances of Survival & Reduce Depression
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