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Health & Balance

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Avoid a Broken Heart

How attitudes and emotional states affect the heart.

Depression Congestion continued...

At the end of the 12 weeks, the hostile patients showed more improvement in exercise capacity, body-fat reduction, total cholesterol levels, and HDL ("good") cholesterol levels than the "low-hostility" patients. They also reported lower levels of hostility, anxiety, and depression, and had fewer complaints of general physical discomfort.

"Higher-risk patients generally benefit more from most therapies," says Carl J. Lavie, M.D., the cardiologist who led the study and the co-director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at the Oschner Clinic. "But we were surprised that the more hostile patients had such marked benefits from the program."

There are lessons here not only for people who have suffered heart attacks but for others who might be headed in that direction, says Joshua Smyth, Ph.D., a psychologist at North Dakota State University in Fargo who studies how stress affects disease.

"We all know about the three biggies that are essential to mental and physical well-being, but they bear repeating," he says.

What to Do

First, exercise regularly. Whether you walk, swim, ride a stationary bike, or take step aerobics, a consistent exercise program not only strengthens your body but also reduces your stress.

Second, foster nurturing relationships. Strong relationships with family and friends are essential to mental and physical health.

Finally, minimize stress. Some people find psychotherapy helps them express emotions, such as hostility, that can lead to health problems. Others reduce stress with exercises like yoga or biofeedback.

Such practices will likely benefit more than your heart, too. People who maintain a positive attitude when faced with stressful situations have stronger immune systems than their pessimistic peers, according to researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles.

After studying 50 students during their first semester of law school -- a notoriously angst-ridden time -- the UCLA researchers discovered that the "situational optimists," the students who were confident that they would do well in school, had more T cells and natural-killer cell activity than the so-called situational pessimists.

These cells are crucial to fighting off infection, says Shelley E. Taylor, a psychology professor at UCLA and a coauthor of the study that was published in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology in 1998. "Bugs just don't hang around optimists as much as they do pessimists."

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