It’s not far-fetched to think that optimistic people are not only happier but
also healthier. Some scientists now believe that keeping a positive attitude may even reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
“Past research has linked optimism with a range of health benefits, including cardiovascular outcome,” said Eric Kim, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan and lead author of a study that was recently published in the medical journal “Stroke,” a publication of the American Heart Association. “What always remained a mystery is exactly how a sunny temperament affects a person’s health.”
“Optimism could be working by reducing blood pressure, or the extent to which blood pressure spikes when [someone is] stressed out. Or it could be that those who are optimistic are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors such as good eating and exercise,” said Dr. Redford Williams, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University who has studied connections between personality and health.
Critics have pointed out that there may be a correlative relationship between people’s psychological characteristics and their biological functions, rather than a causal connection.
“This doesn’t mean that all optimistic people will have a lower risk of stroke,” cautioned Dr. Joseph Broderick, a professor of neurology at the University of Cincinnati. “Optimism can also work against making healthier decisions: You can be optimistic and feel like everything will work out, and so you don’t change your behavior for the better.”
Still, Kim and his colleagues are convinced they have found solid evidence for a strictly biological impact of positive thinking.
For the study, a group of more than 6,000 adults over the age of 50 were rated on a 16-point scale in terms of their general outlook on life. The researchers measured optimism levels with a modified “Life Orientation Test,” a widely used assessment tool in which participants rank their responses to a questionnaire on a numeric scale.
The results showed that for each point increase in optimism, there was a corresponding 9-percent decrease in acute stroke risk over a two-year follow-up period. Adjustments were made for an array of other factors, like race, gender, marital status, body mass index, blood pressure, level of physical activity, alcohol use, smoking, chronic illnesses and other health issues.
“Optimism seems to have a swift impact on stroke,” wrote Kim in a press release after the publication of his report. “In a similar way that depression can impact functioning, we think optimism can, as well.”
Kim’s line of thinking, of course, is by no means revolutionary or even all that new. In “Anatomy of an Illness,” a famous autobiographical account of overcoming a life-threatening illness, Norman Cousins describes in diary-style detail how keeping a positive attitude helped him to beat the odds and led him to complete recovery.
His personal experience made him a strong believer in the power of hope, faith, humor, laughter and the will to live. He considered those to be biochemical components that can actually help to combat serious diseases.
Kim and his colleagues would most likely agree.
TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian and health counselor, is the author of “The Healthy Diner: How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” Visit her website: timigustafson.com.