Optimists Live Longer and Are Less Likely to Have Heart Problems, Scientists Believe

Optimists are less likely to have heart problems and die prematurely, according to scientists.

Researchers found an unexplained link between a positive attitude and good physical health, having looked at 15 existing studies examining the correlation between optimism, cardiovascular disease and the overall risk of dying.

A total of 229,391 participants ranging from 19 to 93 took part in the studies, which measured their levels of optimism and pessimism, and also collated information on their health and their cause of death if applicable. Published between 2001 and 2017, eight of the studies were conducted in the U.S., five in Europe, one in Israel, and one in Australia.

Participants with a glass-half-full outlook on life were less likely to have a cardiovascular event, like a heart attack or stroke, and had a lower chance of dying prematurely.

The authors of the paper, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, said scientists should look for the underlying link between optimism and a longer, healthier life.

Negative emotions, as well as stress, depression and anxiety, and factors like loneliness have previously been linked to poor heart health. This, the authors believe, could explain the link.

In 1988, study co-author Dr. Alan Rozanski, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai St. Luke's, and his team team published a study showing "merely talking" about personal stress can trigger abnormalities in heart function in patients with advanced heart disease.

For years, Rozanski told Newsweek, scientists in the field have focused on how negative factors like depression, loneliness and chronic stress affect an individual's physical health, but in recent years they have turned their attention to the role of positive psychological factors like optimism.

Emerging evidence suggests positivity could lower the risk of other chronic illnesses and "perhaps even dementia," said Rozanski. This trait could therefore be used as a tool in preventative medicine.

Research suggests that optimists are more likely to follow healthy habits, but also reap direct biological benefits, whereas pessimism appears to spur biological damage, Rozanski said. However, he said more research is needed to confirm this.

Asked whether optimism is something we are "born with" or a trait which we can learn and improve upon, Rozanski said the trait has been shown to be around 25 percent genetic, but also influenced by factors including upbringing, social influences and life experiences. Regardless, he said, we can indeed change and improve our mindsets, including by learning coping skills

Exercising the "muscle" of positive thought generation, starting by dwelling on things to be grateful for, also boosts optimism, as do tools learned from cognitive behavioral therapy—a common psychological treatment for conditions such as anxiety and depression.

In August, a separate study spanning five decades found optimists are more likely to reach their 85th birthday and beyond. That study, published in the journal PNAS, linked the trait to living 11 to 15 percent longer, on average, and achieving what is known as "exceptional longevity."

Lewina Lee, assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, was among its authors.

Lee told Newsweek the work by Rozanski and his colleagues is important, but pointed out the studies examined consisted of predominantly white participants from the U.S. and Europe. This should encourage others to look at whether the findings hold up in more diverse populations, she said. "It would be interesting to consider the extent to which the constructs of optimism and pessimism are universal across cultures."

Miriam A. Mosing, assistant professor of the departments of neuroscience and medical epidemiology and biostatistics at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet, told Newsweek the study "lends further support to the notion that there are associations between personality traits and health-related outcomes."

But she added the "question remains whether the association is indeed causal and whether optimism can be learned or changed."

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A stock image of three generations of a family sharing a joke. Getty