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May 03, 2012

Positive Outlook May Reduce Risk for Heart Disease

A positive outlook on life is associated with as much as a 50% reduction in cardiovascular risk.

Over the years, researchers have made great headway in combating heart disease – the #1 killer of men and women in the US. Not only have they identified many well-known risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, they have also found effective ways to reduce these risk factors, like through lifestyle changes and medication. And by addressing established cardiovascular risk factors, patients can drastically reduce their risk for heart disease and improve their heart health. However, it turns out that there may be another simple way to combat heart disease – one that addresses health rather than illness.

In a recent report published online in the journal Psychological Bulletin, Harvard researchers found that positive psychological well-being – mainly optimism, life satisfaction and happiness – may help protect against heart disease. In this report, researchers reviewed more than 200 studies that looked at psychological well-being and heart health. And they found that having a positive outlook on life was associated with as much as a 50% reduction in cardiovascular risk - even after taking into account other factors that might skew this association, like diet, weight and physical activity.

Although we should note that this report doesn’t prove that optimism reduces cardiovascular risk, findings are intriguing. Many studies have linked poor mental health, like anxiety and depression, to increased risk for heart disease, but this is the first review of its kind to suggest that the opposite may also be true – that positive mental health may protect against heart disease.

And whether future research confirms this association, it is clear that mental health plays some role in cardiovascular health. That’s why discussing mental health with healthcare providers – a topic that is often overshadowed by more visible health issues - is essential. Addressing mental health concerns may directly help improve heart health or, at the very least, it may help improve psychological well-being and motivate positive lifestyle changes.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How does mental health effect cardiovascular health?

  • The exact association between mental health and heart health remains unclear. It is possible that mental health directly effects cardiovascular risk, or that more positive people are more likely to engage in healthier behaviors, making them healthier overall. It is also possible that having better physical health and engaging in healthier behaviors helps improve psychological well-being.

  • How can doctors assess mental health?

  • Experts typically use questionnaires that ask a variety of questions – such as mood, stress and anxiety - to assess mental health.