July 21, 2011 -- Findings from a new study suggest that being optimistic may reduce your risk of stroke.
The observational study, conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, is published online in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association.
People who are optimistic expect a favorable outcome. They also tend to focus on the most hopeful aspects of a situation.
"Our work suggests that people who expect the best things in life actively take steps to promote health," study researcher Eric Kim says in a news release. Kim is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan.
Checking Levels of Optimism
To conduct the study, researchers examined self-reported stroke and psychological data collected between the years 2006 and 2008 from the ongoing Health and Retirement Study, a study that surveys over 22,000 Americans ages 50 and over every two years. The researchers looked specifically at a subgroup of 6,044 adults (2,542 men and 3,502 women) who had not had a stroke at the start of the study.
The optimism levels of study participants were measured using the modified Life Orientation Test, a popular assessment tool relying on a 16-point scale.
The analysis was then adjusted for self-rated health, relevant socio-demographic, behavioral, biological, and psychological factors, and chronic illness.
Results showed that there were 88 cases of stroke over a two-year follow-up period. When age, gender, chronic illness, and self-rated health were taken into account, researchers found that with every point increase in optimism there was a 9% decrease in acute stroke risk over the two-year period.
"Optimism seems to have a swift impact on stroke," Kim says in a news release.
A second analysis to assess whether the relationship between optimism and stroke could be related to the absence of negative psychological factors showed that optimism protects against stroke above and beyond the effects of such factors.
The Power of Positive Thinking
Previous research has shown that low pessimism and temporary positive feelings are related to a reduced risk of stroke; however, this study is the first to examine the relationship between optimism and stroke among older adults in a prospective study with a large and nationally representative sample.
Being optimistic may have a protective effect on stroke because of the behavior choices optimistic people tend to make, such as exercising, eating a healthy diet, or taking vitamins, the researchers say. However, some evidence indicates positive thinking may have a strictly biological effect as well.
"More studies are needed to further understand the mechanisms that facilitate the protective role of optimism on stroke," the researchers write. They note that twin studies show that only a portion of optimism is genetic.
They also suggest that if further research continues to point to the protective role of optimism against stroke, then there is a need for further research to assess how "optimism interventions" can supplement current "stroke protocol."