Don’t underestimate the power of positive thinking, according to a Journal of the American College of Cardiology health promotion series that highlights the role of optimism, happiness and having a purpose in life in reducing risk for heart disease.
This paper summarized everything we know about the link between a positive psychological well-being and risk for heart disease—the No. 1 leading killer of Americans.
Many studies have linked poor mental health and depression to increased risk for heart disease. The recent article focused specifically on the power of having a positive outlook and its impact on heart health.
Overall, authors note that there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that optimism is associated with better heart health and lower risk for heart disease. In fact, a 2017 study of 70,021 older women found that women with the highest levels of optimism had 38% lower risk of death from heart disease and 39% lower risk of stroke-related death after eight years than those with a more negative attitude.
Optimism is defined as feeling hopeful and confident about the future and is typically measured in studies using standardized surveys that ask participants about their attitudes and feelings.
Authors also note that multiple studies have looked at the impact of a sense of purpose in life, in addition to a sense of optimism. An analysis that pooled data from 10 different studies found that individuals reporting a sense of purpose in life had 17% lower risk for heart events like heart attack and stroke than those who felt no sense of purpose. A separate study, which performed autopsies on older adults, also found that individuals reporting a higher purpose in life were less likely to show evidence of stroke than those reporting no sense of purpose.
According to authors, there are three potential explanations for this association. First, it’s possible that positive thinking directly impacts the way our body works, promoting heart health. A second explanation is that optimism is linked to healthy behaviors like eating healthy and staying active, which in turn improve health. Or, according to authors, it’s possible that optimism works through things like social relationships and other factors, which help protect us from the negative effects of stress.
Authors encourage future research to better understand how our mental wellbeing impacts future health. But whatever the explanation, authors encourage better screening and support to promote positive thinking and better heart health.
In the recent article, authors include a number of questions that clinicians can ask patients to assess their psychological wellbeing. They address optimism, life satisfaction, gratitude and the idea of leveraging personal strengths.
For example, clinicians can ask patients about their greatest strengths and skills and how they’ve applied these skills to improve their health. Providers should then encourage use of these skills, with simple statements like “I have been so impressed with how you have succeeded in your life when (example). You can use those same skills to be successful in taking care of your own health.”
Similarly, when assessing optimism, clinicians can ask patients how they think things will go with their health in the future. Providers should also reassure patients, explaining that they have managed many patients with the same health problem who have done very well, and that the patient can do well too.
Authors also encourage clinicians to refer patients to community resources and programs that promote engagement and motivation, such as walking groups, mind-body meditation programs and volunteer organizations.
Together, experts hope these steps can help raise awareness for the importance of mental wellbeing and help patients improve both their mental and physical health.