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Optimism Reduces the Risk of Heart Attacks & Strokes

Having a positive and optimistic outlook can help protect people at risk for heart attack and strokes.

April 17th, 2012 the Harvard School of Public Health said “the glass half full attitude” and happiness have been documented to lower risk of vascular diseases and heart problems.

For people who had documented risk factors for heart ailments of all kinds, the Harvard study showed that those who were the positive and optimistic were less likely than their less-optimistic or pessimistic peers to have a stroke or heart attack.

This analysis was the summary of over 200 studies.  Julia K. Boehm PhD, a Harvard research fellow, said this is the largest study ever performed that examined the impact of a positive outlook on heart attack and stroke risk.

“Historically, studies have focused on the negative impact of anxiety and depression.” Dr. Boehm said. “We wanted to look at the flip-side to see how psychological well-being — things like happiness, optimism, and having a sense of purpose — might impact heart disease and stroke risk.”

Along with Harvard associate professor Laura D. Kubzansky PhD, Boehm showed that happiness and optimism are predictors of better heart health.

People with a positive sense of well-being were also more likely to have healthier lifestyles, which could explain their better outcomes, Boehm says.  They tended to exercise, eat better, and get plenty of rest.  In contrast to the negative people who frequently had more risk factors for heart disease and stroke including high blood pressure, obesity or excess weight and higher cholesterol.

“This suggests that bolstering psychological strengths like happiness and optimism could improve cardiovascular health,” Dr. Boehm says.

Bryan Bruno, MD, the chairman of the department of psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, says “The negative impact of depression and emotions of distress on heart attack and stroke risk is well established.”

“Most cardiologists are aware of the importance of treating depression in patients with heart disease.  Study after study has shown that once someone has had a cardiovascular event, their prognosis is a lot worse if they have untreated depression or negative feelings about their healing or treatment.”

Dr. Bruno said it makes sense that positivity would have a health supporting impact on diminishing the risk of heart attack and stroke.  Genetics and hormones can play a part in emotions, yet psychological interventions can assist people in feeling better and learning how to control the negative states they experience.

“Helping people become more optimistic and mentally in control is often a goal of therapy.  And can have a very positive impact on physical health as well.” he says.

The Harvard study funding was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation though an “Exploring the Concept of Positive Health” grant.

It appears in the April 2012 issue of the American Psychological Association journal Psychological Bulletin.

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