SOURCES: Rosalba Hernandez, Ph.D., assistant professor, school of social work, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., professor emeritus, consumer psychology, Golden Gate University, San Francisco; January/February, 2015, Health Behavior and Policy Review
TUESDAY, Jan. 13, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Accenting the positive may be good for your heart, with a large study suggesting that optimistic people seem to have a significant leg up when it comes to cardiovascular health.
"Research has already shown a link between psychological pathology and poor physical health," said study lead author Rosalba Hernandez, an assistant professor in the school of social work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "So we decided to look at whether there's also a link between psychological well-being and good physical health.
"And by looking at optimism as a measure of psychological well-being, we found that after adjusting all sorts of socio-economic factors -- like education, income and even mental health -- people who are the most optimistic do have higher odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health, compared with the least optimistic," she added.
Hernandez and her colleagues discuss their findings in the January/February issue of Health Behavior and Policy Review.
To explore a potential connection between optimism and heart health, the study authors analyzed data from more than 5,100 adults who ranged in age from 52 to 84 between 2002 and 2004 and had been enrolled in the "Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis."
About 40 percent of the participants were white, 30 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic and 10 percent Asian.
As part of the atherosclerosis study, all the participants had completed a standardized test that gauged optimism levels, based on the degree to which they agreed with statements ranging from "I'm always very optimistic about my future" to "I hardly expect things to go my way."
Based on their responses, the participants were then divided into four groups, ranging from the least optimistic to the most optimistic.
The researchers behind the new study then scored each group's heart health by reviewing information such as body mass index (BMI), smoking status, dietary and physical activity routines, blood pressure, fasting glucose levels and cholesterol levels.
The result: the optimists were between 50 percent and 76 percent more likely to have total heart health scores in the intermediate or ideal ranges.
Optimists were also found to have better blood sugar and cholesterol levels, a healthier BMI status, and more rigorous physically activity habits than those in the least optimistic group.
Asked how optimism might make the heart beat better, Hernandez said the jury's still out on that question.
"There is the idea that at least one of the mechanisms that explains this could be that people who are more optimistic are engaging in healthier behavior," she said. "But it also might be that people who are more optimistic might be able to cope a little better with stressful events. The study didn't look at this, but we do want to explore it.
"It's a complex question that has to be examined more carefully," she added.
Kit Yarrow, professor emeritus of consumer psychology at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, said she thinks Hernandez's findings are "very exciting."
"There's a lot of psychological research linking pro-social behaviors to better health," she said. "Gratitude, for example, has been linked to lower impulsivity, higher salaries, better sleep and stronger relationships. And this strikes me as yet another study that reinforces an intuitive knowledge that probably most people have that our mind and body are linked."
Yarrow noted that the study didn't prove that an optimistic outlook can help the heart, it only found an association between the two.
"All we really see here is a correlation," she said. "But it does suggest that our perspective can have a snowball effect that can alter our everyday life. And with that idea, I would accentuate the good news that it's certainly the case that even if you're not born with a big dose of optimism, it is something you can train yourself to adopt. You can actually train your mind to let go of pessimistic thoughts. It's not a lost cause."
For more on mental health and heart disease, visit the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.