Want to live longer after a heart attack? Be an optimist
A new study says positive thinking – and planning – can go a long way for heart patients.
We all know there's power in positive thinking, but is it powerful enough to keep you alive?
A new study says that's exactly what it takes to survive after a heart attack – along with good medical care and a few lifestyle changes, of course. Research led by Dr. Yariv Gerber of Israel's Tel Aviv University shows that optimistic people are more likely to live longer after their first heart attack than people who have a more pessimistic disposition. The study was published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings in November.
In the study, researchers gathered the records of patients in Israel who had been hospitalized for a heart attack between February 1992 and February 1993. It then followed them through Dec. 31, 2015. Of the folks who survived, Gerber and colleagues said the optimists had a higher long-term mortality score than others in the group.
The subjects in the study were about 52 years old when they had their first heart attack. (Photo: milias1987/Shutterstock)
They also found that optimists reported having less inflammation in their bodies than non-optimists. Inflammation has been linked to heart problems in many cases.
“It is important to note that optimism is not simply a rosy glow over the world; in contrast, optimists are more likely to acknowledge risks and plan how to cope with them,” Gerber told Reuters.
Gerber, the chair of the university's epidemiology department, also said it's important to understand the associations between optimism and health-enhancing behaviors. Optimists tend to seek more social support and are less likely to smoke, drink excessively and be depressed. They're also more likely to "acknowledge risks and plan how to cope with them," he added.
And though people are generally ingrained to be one or the other, Gerber said it's possible for a pessimistic person to learn to act more optimistic by adopting new behaviors, like sticking to a diet or saying no to risky or unhealthy activities.
"In other words, even if you cannot turn a person into an optimist, you may be able to teach him/her to ‘behave’ like one,” he said.
It's pretty promising research, but far from the first time science has linked emotional well-being to physical health. In previous studies, optimistic people were found to be twice as likely as pessimists to have healthy hearts and less likely to contract day-to-day illnesses like cold and flu. In a more recent report, it was found that older women who thought more positively were 29 percent less likely to die during the six-year follow-up period. They also reduced their risk of cancer, stroke and lung disease.
Eric Kim, who authored the women's study and is a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, echoed Gerber's theory about the link between optimism and better planning.
"When [people] face life challenges, they create contingency plans, plan for future challenges and accept what can't be changed," he said.
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