Campus & Community

Study: Taking heart leads to better heart health

3 min read

Researchers at the School of Public Health (SPH) and the Department of Veterans Affairs have linked a more optimistic outlook in older men with a dramatically reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). The study examined the effects of an optimistic versus pessimistic way of explaining events on the incidence of heart attack, angina, and fatal CHD among older men.

It appears in the November/December issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, (

The study results also suggest that the benefits of an optimistic explanatory style hold even after taking account of health behaviors such as alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking, as well as other traditional coronary risk factors. Study participants with the highest levels of optimism accounted for less than half the number of cases of angina and heart attacks during the course of the study when compared to pessimistic participants. During the 10-year span of the study, 162 out of 1,306 participants developed CHD. Of those, 34 of the cases were from optimists and 77 from pessimists; the remaining 51 cases were among participants ranked as having an explanatory style that was neither strongly optimistic nor pessimistic.

Some 1,306 Boston-area men from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study (NAS), who in 1986 completed the revised Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2), participated in the research. The volunteers were healthy individuals with no known chronic medical conditions at the start of the study. They were followed for an average of 10 years after filling out the questionnaire that assessed their levels of optimism. Optimism and pessimism were measured using the revised Optimism-Pessimism Scale, a bipolar scale that measures explanatory style by using 263 items selected from the MMPI-2.

The researchers also noted that optimism has been linked in the past to an increased likelihood of engaging in healthy behaviors such as avoiding excessive alcohol consumption and smoking, although these behaviors did not explain the relationship between optimism and CHD in this study. Optimism has also been linked to higher levels of positive emotions and more positive social interactions.

“Most of the evidence for the notion that ‘thinking positively’ is good for your health has been anecdotal – this study provides some of the first hard medical evidence for this idea in the arena of heart disease,” said Laura Kubzansky, assistant professor of health and social behavior at the School of Public Health. “We found that men who view the world more optimistically had half the risk of coronary heart disease relative to more pessimistic men. Thinking positively is more than simply avoiding negative emotions. We found that the power of positive thinking held even after consideration of both negative emotions and health behaviors like smoking.”

The study was supported in part by grants from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and from the National Institute for Aging.