Don’t worry, be happy, live longer: Study

By Jasminee Sahoye

HealthColumnGraphicA study with more than 5,100 adults suggests people with positive outlooks on life have significantly better cardiovascular health.

Lead author Rosalba Hernandez, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois, says “Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts.  This association remains significant, even after adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and poor mental health.”

Seven aspects of participants’ cardiovascular health were assessed – blood pressure, body mass index, fasting plasma glucose and serum cholesterol levels, dietary intake, physical activity and tobacco use.  This metric has been used by the American Heart Association (AHA) to define heart health and is targeted by the AHA in its Life’s Simple 7 public awareness campaign.

The researchers allocated 0, 1 or 2 points, which represent poor, intermediate and ideal scores, respectively to participants on each of the seven metrics. These were then summarised to arrive at a total cardiovascular health score.   The points are in accordance with AHA’s heart health criteria. Participants’ total health scores ranged from 0 to 14, with a higher total score indicative of better health.

Participants, aged 45-84, also completed surveys that assessed mental health, levels of optimism and physical health based on self-reported medical diagnoses of arthritis, liver and kidney disease.

Individuals’ total health scores increased in tandem with their levels of optimism. The most optimistic were 50 and 76% more likely to have total health scores in the intermediate or ideal ranges, respectively.

The association between optimism and cardiovascular health was even stronger when socio-demographic characteristics such as age, race and ethnicity, income and education status were factored in. People who were the most optimistic were twice as likely to have ideal cardiovascular health, and 55% more likely to have a total health score in the intermediate range, the researchers found.

Optimists had significantly better blood sugar and total cholesterol levels than their counterparts. They also were more physically active, had healthier body mass indexes and were less likely to smoke.

“This evidence, which is hypothesized to occur through a biobehavioural mechanism, suggests that prevention strategies that target modification of psychological well-being – e.g., optimism – may be a potential avenue for AHA to reach its goal of improving Americans’ cardiovascular health by 20% before 2020,” Hernandez says.

Believed to be the first study to examine the association of optimism and cardiovascular health in a large, ethnically and racially diverse population, the sample for the current study was 38% white, 28% African-American, 22% Hispanic / Latino and 12% Chinese.

Data for the study were derived from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, an ongoing examination of subclinical cardiovascular disease that includes 6,000 people from six U.S. regions, including Baltimore, Chicago, Forsyth County in North Carolina and Los Angeles County.

In contrast, another study published by the American Psychological Association in February 2013, showed that older people who have low expectations for a satisfying future may be more likely to live longer, healthier lives than those who see brighter days ahead.

“Our findings revealed that being overly optimistic in predicting a better future was associated with a greater risk of disability and death within the following decade,” said lead author Frieder R. Lang, PhD, of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany. “Pessimism about the future may encourage people to live more carefully, taking health and safety precautions.”

Lang and colleagues examined data collected from 1993 to 2003 for the national German Socio-Economic Panel, an annual survey of private households consisting of approximately 40,000 people 18 to 96 years old. The researchers divided the data according to age groups: 18 to 39 years old, 40 to 64 years and 65 and above. Through mostly in-person interviews, respondents were asked to rate how satisfied they were with their lives and how satisfied they thought they would be in five years.

Five years after the first interview, 43% of the oldest group had underestimated their future life satisfaction, 25% had predicted accurately and 32% had overestimated, according to the study.

Based on the average level of change in life satisfaction over time for this group, each increase in overestimating future life satisfaction was related to a 9.5% increase in reporting disabilities and a 10% increased risk of death, the analysis revealed.

Because a darker outlook on the future is often more realistic, older adults’ predictions of their future satisfaction may be more accurate, according to the study.