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Are Optimists Protected from Heart Attacks?

A meta-analysis of 15 studies finds that optimists are less likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes. They are also less likely to die prematurely.

Americans are often exhorted to walk on the sunny side or look for the silver lining. Can a cheery attitude influence your health? A recent meta-analysis suggests that optimists are less likely to suffer heart attacks, strokes, angina and death from cardiovascular causes (JAMA Network Open, Sept 27, 2019).

How Did Scientists Study Optimists?

The analysis included 15 studies with a total of 229,391 participants. Previously, social scientists had reported that optimists are more likely to succeed at various endeavors. These studies asked people questions designed to elicit whether they expect things to turn out well. Then the scientists collected data on the volunteers’ subsequent health.

A pessimistic attitude, defined as anticipation of trouble, increased people’s risk of cardiac problems. Optimists were 35 percent less likely to experience cardiovascular events.

There were nine studies that reported on mortality rates between optimists and pessimists. These studies included 188,599 volunteers among them. The analysts found that optimists were less likely to die during the time frames of the studies. (Even optimists die eventually.) They did report that studies finding no difference in mortality rates were less likely to be published. This publication bias didn’t change their conclusions, however.

How Should Cardiologists Harness Optimism?

The authors suggest that health professionals might want to come up with interventions that reduce pessimism and promote optimism. Such tactics might be especially helpful in cardiac rehab programs. In attempting to explain how a hopeful mindset might affect health, they point out that optimists are more likely to exercise regularly and eat healthful diets.

There may also be some more ineffable connections. The researchers express the hope that their study might stimulate research into the heart benefits of a sense of purpose or gratitude.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Rozanski A et al, "Association of optimism with cardiovascular events and all-cause mortality: A systematic review and meta-analysis." JAMA Network Open, Sept 27, 2019. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.12200
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