Embracing positive emotions–from optimism and gratitude to love, laughter and other joyful experiences–has been shown to dramatically reduce heart attack and stroke risk, and could even add years to your life, new research suggests.
In fact, the most optimistic people are twice as likely to have ideal cardiovascular health, compared to those who are pessimistic, according to a study of more than 5,100 adults, published in the January/February 2015 issue of Health Behavior and Policy Review. University of Illinois researchers evaluated participants’ cardiovascular health according to the metrics used by the American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7.”
For each metric, participants received a score of 0, 1, or 2, representing poor, intermediate, and ideal scores respectively. Volunteers ages 45 to 84 also completed questionnaires that evaluated their mental and physical health, and degree of optimism. Those with upbeat attitudes had significantly better blood sugar and total cholesterol, were more physically active, less likely to smoke, and had a healthier body mass index.
The study adds to other recent findings about cardiovascular benefits of positive emotions, including the following:
- Happy people have 50 percent lower heart attack and stroke risk. In a 2012 Harvard School of Public Health systematic review of more than 200 studies, optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness were linked with lower risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD), even when age, socioeconomic status, smoking, and body weight are taken into account. The most optimistic people had only half the risk for an initial cardiovascular event–such as a heart attack or stroke–as their less upbeat counterparts. The researchers also reported that happy people engage in healthier behaviors, such as exercising, eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep. A positive outlook was also associated with lower blood pressure, healthier lipid levels and body weight. “These findings suggest that an emphasis on bolstering psychological strengths rather than simply mitigating psychological deficits may improve cardiovascular health,” said senior study author Dr. Laura Kubzanky.
- An upbeat outlook may reduce inflammation. The more happy moments women experience during a typical day, the less likely they are to have high blood levels of the inflammatory biomarker high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP), compared to women who experience few or no moments of pleasurable emotions, even when possible confounders are taken into consideration, according to a study of 2,873 people published in American Journal of Epidemiology. Participants were asked to rate their mood four times over the course of one day.Another study, which included 6,814 people of diverse ethnicities, linked pessimism to higher levels of both CRP and fibrinogen (a protein involved in blood clotting that has been identified as an independent risk factor for CVD if it’s elevated). People with high hsCRP have double or even triple the risk for heart disease, with more than a dozen major studies reporting that elevated levels predict risk for heart attack, stroke, sudden cardiac death and developing peripheral artery disease.
- Laughter may be as beneficial to blood vessels as exercise. Watching comedies has beneficial effects on vascular function, while upsetting movies have the opposite effect, according to research by Michael Miller, MD and colleagues at University of Maryland School of Medicine. Volunteers viewed scenes from a funny movie (“Something About Mary”) one day and scenes from a stressful movie (“Saving Private Ryan”) on a different day. During the stressful movie, participants experienced a potentially unhealthy reaction called vasoconstriction (where the blood vessels narrow) which increases blood pressure. In those who watched the comedy, the blood vessel lining (endothelium) expanded during the comedy, which lowered blood pressure. “The magnitude of change we saw in the endothelium after laughing was consistent and similar to the benefit we might see with aerobic exercise or statin use,” reported Dr. Miller. “The endothelium is the first line in the development of atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, so it is very possible that laughing on a regular basis may be useful to incorporate as part of an overall healthy lifestyle to prevent heart disease. In other words, eat your veggies, exercise and get a good belly laugh every day” says Dr. Miller.
- Optimists live longer. In a study of more than 97,000 post-menopausal women, ages 50 to 79, those who looked on the bright side were 30 percent less likely to die from heart disease and 14 percent less likely to die from any cause during more than eight years of follow-up. Participants in the research, which was published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, were free of CVD and cancer at the start of the study.Optimists also had lower rates of such heart risks as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depressive symptoms, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle or obesity. However, the link between optimism and lower risk for heart disease and premature death persisted even after these factors were taken into account.”Optimistic people seem to seek medical advice and follow it,” lead study author Hilary Tindle, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh told Scientific American. “They [also] have good social networks and strong social relationships,” which may help them cope with chronic stress, a heart disease risk.”