Contact: Laura Kubzansky, PhD
For Release: March 7, 2019
Healthy people who are more optimistic are less likely than pessimists to develop hypertension over time, suggests a study out today of more than 100,000 U.S. Army soldiers followed for up to five years. It will be released at the American Psychosomatic Society meeting in Vancouver
Military service members are at higher than average risk for hypertension, and it often occurs at a younger age than for civilians, says study author Laura Kubzansky, PhD, Lee Kum Kee Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. When they join, though, soldiers must have healthy blood pressure; her participants all did at the start of the study. The 101,825 soldiers (83% men) all filled out questionnaires on their levels of optimism vs. pessimism. Then, over the next five years, while the majority remained soldiers, the research team identified any relevant changes to their medical diagnoses, prescription medications or blood pressure readings.
The soldiers who were most optimistic (in the top 20% of optimism levels) at the start had a 32% lower risk of developing hypertension than the least optimistic (bottom 20%), the chronic pessimists. And the less optimistic a soldier was to begin with, the more likely it was that he or she would end up with high blood pressure a few years down the line. The protective shield of greater optimism held strong across different groups, including whites, African-Americans and Hispanics, says Kubzansky. (There were likely too few Asians for any significant findings.) The results held after accounting for age, gender, race/ethnicity, average deployment length at the start and health-related factors.
“It’s remarkable, really striking, that optimism is already so protective in such a young, healthy group,” says Kubzansky. Its power in predicting hypertension is important because it may help to reduce the risk of other major health conditions; high blood pressure puts people at greater risk for heart attack, stroke and death. More optimistic people tend to be confident that they can take actions that will advance their personal goals. They also tend to eat healthier diets, exercise more and smoke less—all activities that contribute to reducing their risk of high blood pressure.
The new findings suggest it could be worthwhile to assess levels of optimism among healthy adults who are at higher risk of hypertension, such as service members before deployment, and perhaps even employ strategies that have been proven to move people who are less optimistic to be more positive. “The military has been highly concerned about depression and PTSD and preventing suicide,” says Kubzansky. “There may be protective, positive qualities they can help to boost as well.” Although 25% to 30% of how someone falls on the optimist/pessimist spectrum appears to be heritable, studies show that there are strategies that can make people more optimistic, though the effects so far are somewhat modest. “Can you move it enough to be meaningful for hypertension? We don’t know yet,” Kubzansky notes. But the powerful impact of blood pressure on health combined with the new optimism finding suggest it may be worth considering, she adds.
(The authors acknowledge the significant support provided by the men and women of the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the Army, the Army Analytics Group and the Research Facilitation Laboratory. Army resources like the Person-Event Data Environment make it possible for studies like this one to assess the influence of psychological assets and deficits on illness and health.)
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1943, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that organizes an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”