Feb. 27, 2006 -- Optimism might help avoid fatal heart problems, new research shows.
Researchers in the Netherlands followed 545 men age 64-84 for 15 years. None had a known history of heart problems when the study started.
The men took optimism quizzes at the study's start and several other times over the years. They also rated their overall health and provided other important information about themselves.
- Optimistic men were less likely to die of heart problems during the study.
- Optimistic men tended to stay optimistic as they aged.
The study appears in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The researchers included Erik Giltay, MD, PhD. He works in the Institute of Mental Health in the Dutch town of Delft.
"Optimism is strongly associated with physical health, even to strong clinical endpoints like cardiovascular death," Giltay tells WebMD in an email.
While his latest study only included men, Giltay says women's hearts may also benefit from optimism.
Giltay and colleagues published another study in October 2004 in the Archives of General Psychiatry. "We found that dispositional optimism was also significantly related to a lower risk of cardiovascular death in women," Giltay says.
Dispositional optimism means being engaged in life with generally positive expectations about the future, write Giltay and colleagues.
Take the Optimism Quiz
Is your glass half empty or half full? Gauge your own optimism level with the quiz used in Giltay's study.
Read these statements and decide whether you fully agree, partially agree, don't agree, or don't know:
- I still expect much from life.
- I do not look forward to what lies ahead for me in the years to come.
- My days seem to be passing slowly.
- I am still full of plans.
Here are the guidelines for scoring:
- Statement No. 1: Give yourself two points if you fully agree, one point if you partially agree or don't know, and no points if you disagree.
- Statement No. 2: Give yourself no points if you fully agree, one point if you partially agree or don't know, and two points if you disagree.
- Statement No. 3: Give yourself no points if you fully agree, one point if you partially agree or don't know, and two points if you disagree.
- Statement No. 4: Give yourself two points if you fully agree, one point if you partially agree or don't know, and no points if you disagree.
The more points you have, the more optimistic you are, according to the researchers.
Optimism the Reason?
The study doesn't prove that optimism alone saved participants' hearts. Optimistic people might tend to take better care of themselves or cope better with problems, the researchers note.
Giltay's team took that into consideration. They asked the men about many factors that could affect health, including smoking, physical activity, diabetes, high blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), alcohol use, marriage, and education.
However, observational studies like this one don't directly test their topic. None of the men were told to change their outlooks. Optimism scores also faded a bit with age but were generally stable, the study shows.
Could becoming more optimistic help your heart's health?
"It is yet unknown whether one could decrease one's cardiovascular risk by enhancing optimism," Giltay tells WebMD.
"Various forms of psychotherapy would be suitable for the task, but would seem hard to induce (even small) improvements in patients' personality traits," Giltay continues. "These are known to be stable over many years (as we have found in the present study) and life events."
University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, who didn't work on Giltay's study, shared his views with WebMD via email.
Seligman writes that Giltay's study "is coherent with a large literature that points to pessimism and depression as major risk factors for cardiac death."
Seligman, whose books include Learned Optimism, also says that "there is a substantial literature ... on how to stably change pessimism to optimism."
Seligman is a past president of the American Psychological Association. He is a specialist in the field of positive psychology, which includes the study of positive emotion and positive character traits.