A new study has shown that people with optimistic views of life tend to have much healthier hearts and have much lower risks of cardiovascular disease. However, the study, which monitored over 5,000 adults did not control for other variables in lifestyle, such as exercising and diet.
“Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts,” said lead author Rosalba Hernandez, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois. “This association remains significant, even after adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and poor mental health.”
The participants’ health was estimated using seven metrics: blood pressure, body mass index, fasting plasma glucose and serum cholesterol levels, dietary intake, physical activity and tobacco use — the same metrics used by the American Heart Association to define heart health and being targeted by the AHA in its Life’s Simple 7 public awareness campaign.
Participants were graded with a 0, 1 or 2, to represent poor, average, or healthy. The participants, who ranged in age from 45-84, also completed surveys that assessed their mental health, levels of optimism, and physical health, based upon self-reported extant medical diagnoses of arthritis, liver and kidney disease. The results showed a correlation between the level of optimism and how healthy the heart was. But as we know, correlation is not causation. In other words, in this case, it’s not clear if it’s the optimism that’s directly making people more healthy, or if healthy people tend to be more optimistic, or if there is some other, unrelated underlying mechanism.
To me, it seems like quite a problem that they didn’t control for other variables. It seems pretty clear that optimistic people tend to work out more and lead healthier lives, and there’s also more reasons for healthy people to be optimistic. So we have to consider that even as total health scores increased in tandem with their levels of optimism, we still need more research before we can say that optimism is healthy. Even if this is the case, causation is very hard to prove here.
Still, study authors seem convinced that this is the case.
“At the population level, even this moderate difference in cardiovascular health translates into a significant reduction in death rates,” Hernandez said. “This evidence, which is hypothesized to occur through a biobehavioral mechanism, suggests that 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.”
From what I could find, this is the first study to correlate optimism with levels of health, and results are promising.
Rosalba Hernandez, Kiarri N. Kershaw, Juned Siddique, Julia K. Boehm, Laura D. Kubzansky, Ana Diez-Roux, Hongyan Ning, Donald M. Lloyd-Jones. Optimism and Cardiovascular Health: Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA).Health Behavior and Policy Review, 2015; 2 (1): 62 DOI: 10.14485/HBPR.2.1.6