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Optimism and health

Need some encouragement to look on the bright side? Well, if you are living with heart disease, here's a good reason - it turns out that optimism and health are related.

Read on

But first, what's the definition of optimism? One definition is "a tendency to expect the best possible outcome or dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation." Another is "the propensity to look at the bright side of any situation and expect the best possible outcome from any series of events."

According to Harvard Health Publications, optimism helps people cope with disease and recover from surgery. In fact, research shows that a positive outlook can have an effect on your overall health and longevity.

In one study, doctors evaluated 309 middle-aged people who were scheduled to undergo bypass surgery. In addition to a complete pre-operative physical exam, each patient underwent a psychological evaluation to measure their optimism, depression, neuroticism, and self-esteem. Researchers tracked all the patients for six months after surgery. They found optimists were half as likely as pessimists to end up back in the hospital.

In another study of 298 angioplasty patients, optimism was also found to be protective. Over a six-month period, pessimists were three times more likely than optimists to have heart attacks or require repeat angioplasties or bypass operations.

Still not convinced about the relationship between optimism and health?

An American study of 2,564 men and women 65 and older found that optimism is good for blood pressure. Researchers evaluated each patient at a home visit. They also measured blood pressure, height, and weight and collected information about age, marital status, alcohol use, diabetes, and medication. Even after taking risk factors into account, people with positive emotions had lower blood pressures than those with a negative outlook. On average, the people with the most positive emotions had the lowest blood pressures.

If being an optimist can reduce the risk of hypertension, can it also protect against developing heart disease? To find out, scientists from Harvard and Boston University evaluated 1,306 men with an average age of 61. Each volunteer was evaluated on their optimism as well as for blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity, smoking, alcohol use, and family history of heart disease. None of the participants had been diagnosed with heart disease when the study began. Over the next 10 years, the most pessimistic men were more than twice as likely to develop heart disease than the most optimistic men, even after taking other risk factors into account.

Finally, according to a study of of more than 100,000 women 50 years and older at the University of Pittsburgh published in 2009 in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association optimists are less stressed and tend to cope with problems head-on, compared with pessimists.

Participants in this study were asked to answer a standard questionnaire that measured optimistic tendencies. Women who said they expected good rather than bad things to happen were 14 percent less likely to die from any cause and 30 percent less likely to die from heart disease compared to pessimists. Those scoring highest in optimism were more likely to be alive eight years later, while those with the lowest, most pessimistic scores were more likely to have died from any cause, including heart disease. Optimists were also less likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, or smoke cigarettes.

Apparently when in comes to optimism and health, pessimism may be as bad for you as having high blood pressure.

One thing the lead researcher noted was that optimistic people are generally more hopeful, probably have a larger support network, watch what they eat, exercise more, and see the doctor regularly. They may also cope better with stress, a risk factor that has been associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, and early death.

Optimism and health? Sounds like a good reason to stay on the sunny side of the street to me!

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