Optimism & Positive Outlook May Help Prevent Heart Attack, New Study Finds

Optimism & Positive Psychological Outlook Associated with Lower Risk of Cardiovascular ProblemsIn a new study reviewing more than 200 studies published in two major scientific databases, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found that positive psychological well-being, including especially a sense of optimism, appears to reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular events.

The new study, “The Heart’s Content: The Association Between Positive Psychological Well-Being and Cardiovascular Health,” by Julia Boehm, research fellow in the Department of Society, Human Development and Health at HSPH, and Laura Kubzansky, associate professor of society, human development and health at HSPH, was published in the April 16, 2012 online issue of the Psychological Bulletin.

According to the American Heart Association, more than 2,200 Americans die of cardiovascular disease (CVD) every day, which is an average of one death every 39 seconds. Another one of every 18 U.S. deaths is caused by stroke.

In a release about the new study, the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) states that “Over the last few decades numerous studies have shown negative states, such as depression, anger, anxiety, and hostility, to be detrimental to cardiovascular health.” However, the new Harvard study is the “first and largest systematic review” of research to determine “how positive psychological characteristics are related to heart health,” according to the HSPH release.

“The absence of the negative is not the same thing as the presence of the positive. We found that factors such as optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness are associated with reduced risk of CVD regardless of such factors as a person’s age, socioeconomic status, smoking status, or body weight,” said lead author Julia Boehm.

“For example, the most optimistic individuals had an approximately 50% reduced risk of experiencing an initial cardiovascular event compared to their less optimistic peers,” she said.

The Study and its Findings

The Harvard researchers reviewed more than 200 previously published studies found in two major scientific databases. The 200 research papers measured slightly different emotional states using questionnaires and assessments to score individuals’ psychological characteristics and outlooks.

Some of the studies measured the participants’ satisfaction with their life, the extent to which they experienced pleasurable feelings, and the extent to which they considered themselves a happy or unhappy person. Several also measured optimism and hope, and the extent to which individuals expected positive outcomes in the future and felt enthusiasm for life.

Reviewing all of this scientific literature, the researchers found a consistent association between measures of positive psychological well-being, such as optimism and positive emotion, and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks.

“It also appears that these factors slow the progression of disease,” according to the HSPH release about the study’s findings.

The researchers found that positive psychological well-being “protects consistently against CVD, independently of traditional risk factors and ill-being”, and that specifically, “optimism is most robustly associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular events.”

In fact, “the most optimistic individuals had an approximately 50% reduced risk of experiencing an initial cardiovascular event compared to their less optimistic peers,” according to lead author Julia Boehm.

The link between optimism and psychological well-being and lower risk of CDV remained true regardless of factors like age, socioeconomic status, smoking and body weight. “Even if a person is overweight, smokes a lot and has high cholesterol, they can still benefit from positive emotions. It is something unique about well-being itself,” Boehm told Time.

To further understand how psychological well-being may promote heart health, the authors Boehm and Kubzansky also investigated the extent of association between psychological well-being and heart-healthy behaviors as well as biological measures associated with heart health.

They found that across all the studies reviewed, individuals with optimism and a sense of well-being engaged in healthier behaviors, including exercising, eating a balanced diet, and getting sufficient sleep. In addition, they found that positive psychological outlook correlated with better biological function, which included lower blood pressure, healthier lipid (blood fat) profiles, and normal body weight.

“We found that if you have a positive disposition you’re more likely to exercise, eat well and get enough sleep at night. This can have positive biological effects in terms of inflammation, cholesterol, blood pressure and lipids,” Boehm said. “Engaging in healthier behaviors can lead to healthier bodily functions.”

Conclusions; Implications

The Harvard authors suggest that their findings may have strong implications for how best to design future public health intervention and prevention strategies to fight heart disease.

“These findings suggest that an emphasis on bolstering psychological strengths rather than simply mitigating psychological deficits may improve cardiovascular health,” Kuzbansky said.

The authors call for “additional prospective investigations and research that includes multiple constructs of psychological well-being and ill-being” to test whether higher levels of positive emotions like optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness consistently precede cardiovascular health.

The Harvard study was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio through the grant “Exploring Concepts of Positive Health.”

More Information

The entire study report, “The Heart’s Content: The Association between Positive Psychological Well-Being and Cardiovascular Health,” by Julia K. Boehm and Laura D. Kubzansky, is available online in the April 16, 2012 issue of the Psychological Bulletin.

See related HelpingYouCare™ reports on:

Optimism Lowers Risk of Stroke, Study Finds

5 Healthy Lifestyle Factors Significantly Reduce Risk of Stroke, New Study Finds

HHS & Public-Private Partners Aim to Prevent 1 Million Heart Attacks & Strokes in 5 Years

Healthy Lifestyle Associated With 92 Percent Lower Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death

For more information on heart disease and stroke, see the HelpingYouCare™ resource pages on Heart Disease & Stroke, including


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