Harvard Women's Health Watch

In the journals: Optimism may lower your risk of heart disease

Evidence has long suggested that psychological factors can influence our risk of physical illness and death. Now, in the largest investigation so far to examine the possible health effects of optimism and cynical hostility in postmenopausal women, researchers have found that optimistic women are less likely to develop heart disease or die from any cause than pessimistic women. They also found that a high level of cynical hostility (harboring hostile or mistrustful feelings toward others) increases a woman's risk of dying from all causes. The study appeared in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association (Aug. 25, 2009).

The study involved 97,253 women — 89,259 white women and 7,994 black women — ages 50 to 79 participating in the Women's Health Initiative, a long-term investigation of postmenopausal women's health. At the start of the study, none of the women had cardiovascular disease or cancer. Optimism was measured with a questionnaire including statements such as, "In unclear times, I usually expect the best." Cynical hostility was assessed with a different questionnaire featuring statements like, "It is safer to trust nobody." The researchers also collected information on the women's socioeconomic status, medical history, personal habits, and education. Subjects were followed for more than eight years.

Overall, the most optimistic women (compared with the least optimistic) had a 16% lower risk of heart attack, a 9% lower risk of heart disease, a 30% lower risk of dying from heart disease, and a 14% lower risk of dying from any cause. Moreover, the most cynical and hostile women, compared with the least, were 23% more likely to develop cancer and 16% more likely to die during the eight years of follow-up.

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