Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. The American Heart Association (AHA) estimates that about 2,200 Americans die of cardiovascular disease (CVD) each day. This is an average of one death every 39 seconds. Stroke causes about one of every 18 U.S. deaths.

What can you do to keep your heart healthy and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease (atherosclerosis) or having a stroke? Traditionally, the emphasis has been on healthy lifestyle choices based on diet, exercise, non-smoking, etc. that improve overall physical well-being.

While daily habits that maintain and improve physical health are obviously important, new research shows that your psychological state of mind and explanatory style significantly impact the health of your heart.

Optimism Is Good For Your Heart

A new study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has found that optimistic people have healthier hearts. Rosalba Hernandez, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois, found that individuals who had the highest levels of optimism were twice as likely to be in ideal cardiovascular health than their more pessimistic peers.  

Across the board, people who have a positive outlook and upbeat attitude toward life have significantly better cardiovascular health.

The January 2015 study, “Optimism and Cardiovascular Health: Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA),” was published in the journal Health Behavior and Policy Review.

The data for the University of Illinois study came from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), which is an ongoing examination of subclinical cardiovascular disease that includes 6,000 people from six U.S. regions, including Baltimore, Chicago, Forsyth County in North Carolina, and Los Angeles County.

MESA is believed to be the first study to examine the association between optimism and cardiovascular health in a large, ethnically and racially diverse population. The sample for the study was 38 percent white, 28 percent African-American, 22 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 12 percent Chinese.

Participants' cardiovascular health was assessed using 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 seven metrics used by the American Heart Association to define heart health.

The participants of MESA—who ranged in age from 45 to 84—also filled out surveys assessing their mental health, levels of optimism, and physical health. The researchers found that total health scores increased in tandem with levels of optimism.

The association between optimism and cardiovascular health was even stronger when socio-demographic characteristics such as age, race, ethnicity, and income and education status were factored into the equation. The researchers found that individuals who were the most optimistic were twice as likely to have ideal cardiovascular health. 

Optimism Creates an Upward Spiral of Well-Being

Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers have also found that positive psychological well-being appears to reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular events.

An April 2012 HSPH study published in Psychological Bulletin concluded that psychological traits such as optimism and positive emotions seemed to protect against cardiovascular disease. The researchers also found that these psychological factors appeared to slow the progression of disease.

In a press release, Julia Boehm, research fellow in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health at HSPH said:

"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 ... For example, the most optimistic individuals had an approximately 50 percent reduced risk of experiencing an initial cardiovascular event compared to their less optimistic peers."

The researchers also found that optimism and positive emotions created an upward spiral of well-being. Optimists tended to take better care of themselves by exercising, eating a balanced diet, getting sufficient sleep, etc.

Optimists also had significantly better blood sugar and total cholesterol levels than their more pessimistic counterparts. They also tended to have healthier body mass indexes and were less likely to smoke cigarettes.

Stress, Hostility, and Depression Are Bad For Your Heart

In July 2014, the American Heart Association published a report in the journal Stroke. It concluded that higher levels of stress, hostility and depressive symptoms are associated with significantly increased risk of stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) in middle-age and older adults. A TIA is a stroke caused by a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain.

The AHA researchers also used the MESA data to investigate how psychological factors might influence risk of having a stroke or TIA. The researchers found that individuals with the highest psychological scores for depression, stress, and hostility were:

  • 86 percent more likely to have a stroke or TIA for high depressive symptoms.
  • 59 percent more likely to have a stroke or TIA for the highest chronic stress scores.
  • More than twice as likely to have a stroke or TIA for the highest hostility scores.

"There's such a focus on traditional risk factors—cholesterol levels, blood pressure, smoking and so forth—and those are all very important, but studies like this one show that psychological characteristics are equally important," Susan Everson-Rose, Ph.D., M.P.H., study lead author and associate professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis said in a press release.

Conclusion: Can Optimism Be Learned?

The findings of this new research confirm that higher levels of satisfaction, optimism, and a positive attitude improve cardiovascular health. Hopefully, these findings will inspire you to make a conscious effort thoughout the day to look on the bright side and avoid cynicism whenever possible. 

Do you consider yourself to be an optimist or a pessimist? Is changing your explanatory style from a tendency to see the glass as "half-empty" to "half-full" within the locus of your control? I believe the answer is, yesYou can choose to see the glass as half-empty or half-full. 

Through daily choices that include things like, maintaining a strong social network, physical activity, a sense of humor, mindfulness training, and loving-kindness meditation (LKM), I believe that anyone can rewire his or her brain to be more optimistic, grateful, satisfied, and upbeat—while simultaneously becoming less hostile, stressed, and depressed.

There is one important caveat—I am not advocating becoming a Pollyanna. I advocate pragmatic optimism as an explanatory style that each of us can use every day to create an upward spiral of physical and psychological well-being.

In a press release, Rosalba Hernandez concludes, "At the population level, even this moderate difference in cardiovascular health translates into a significant reduction in death rates ... prevention strategies that target modification of psychological well-being—e.g., optimism—may be a potential avenue for AHA to reach its goal of improving Americans' cardiovascular health by 20 percent before 2020."

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts: 

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Photo Credits: Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons

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