Contact: Julia Boehm, PhD
For Release: Immediately
Optimism in early middle age may be good for the heart: Adults who are optimists at about age 40 are less likely than pessimists to have unhealthy physical signs a decade later that increase their risk for heart attacks and strokes.
In fact, the more optimistic someone was at the outset, the better their measures of cardiovascular health 10 years later, a new study shows. It appears in the October issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
Some earlier evidence has pointed to a link between optimism and lowered risk for heart attacks and strokes, says study leader Julia Boehm, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology at Chapman University. But this is the first long-term, large study that follows Black and white adults over time to see how their initial optimism levels may affect later cardiovascular (CV) risk factors, she notes.
Participants included 3,188 Americans 33 to 45 years old at the start (average age: 40) who filled out a questionnaire on their level of optimism. Clinical staff measured their blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and height, and participants were asked whether they had diabetes or smoked. These health checks, indicating key risk factors for strokes and heart attacks, were updated five and 10 years later. The researchers controlled for age, race, education, income, physical activity, history of depression and diagnoses of heart problems or cancer—all of which could influence CV health.
Initial optimism showed a significant link to better signs of CV health 10 years later, says Boehm, but it did not predict the rate of decline over time. “Optimism may contribute to establishing favorable cardiovascular health early in adulthood, but then other factors could influence whether these health benefits persists,” she suggests. “One of the big take-home messages is that we need to be looking at this earlier—40 is too late, 30 may be too late.”
One stunning finding was how few adults at age 40 met the established medical criteria for CV health on all five measures—10% of women, 5% of men. While the link with optimism didn’t differ for whites and blacks, it did differ by gender: Optimism had a greater effect on women’s CV health than it did on men’s health. “That may be because so few men started out healthy,” Boehm speculates.
The overall link between optimism and CV health, though modest, was comparable to links between CV health and the diagnoses of heart problems and also income, which are notable. “And even small effects can have a large impact when you’re considering millions of people,” she says.
Some research suggests optimists eat more fruits and vegetables than pessimists, exercise more and sleep better—all could affect CV risk, Boehm notes. Optimists also may have better heart-protective strategies for coping with stress, perhaps because they’re less likely to doubt they can manage and gather needed support.
Although optimism levels may be as much as 50% inborn, social context matters too. “It’s easier to be optimistic if you’re growing up and there’s no need to worry about whether food will be on the table and the electricity will stay on.” There are certain visualization exercises that can help to boost personal optimism, she adds.
We have little research on preventing CV risk factors from developing in early life, Boehm points out. “We’re pretty well ingrained in our behaviors at 40. And it’s so, so difficult to reverse once you have cardiovascular disease .” Believing we need to investigate starting earlier with prevention, her research is now focusing on youths as young as 11. “We may be able to do better if we begin earlier in life,” she suggests.
Faculty Link: https://www.chapman.edu/our-faculty/julia-boehm
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (http://www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1942, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that conducts 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.”