The Happy Heart: Being Optimistic Can Help Your Heart Health
By Megy Karydes
“It’s well recorded that depression, anxiety and stress [are] associated with poor health,” says Rosalba Hernandez, PhD, MSc, lead author of the study and social work professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Optimistic people had better cardiovascular health, blood sugar and total cholesterol levels than their counterparts. They also were more physically active, had healthier body mass indexes and were less likely to smoke, the study found.
Sara Sirna, MD, a cardiologist who specializes in preventive cardiology and women’s heart health at Loyola University Health System, sees firsthand the benefits of a positive outlook with her patients.
“We know if somebody is hopeful, is optimistic, has a strong social network and has strong social ties, that they tend to do better,” Sirna says. Optimistic patients have fewer complications and hospital visits following heart bypass surgery or after a heart attack, she says.
“I think that the mechanism behind this is that if people are pessimistic, depressed, unhappy or anxious, they release stress hormones like cortisol, which is detrimental to the body,” Sirna says. “People who are pessimistic are down, and they tend to be less active. They probably don’t eat as healthy; they may smoke; they may drink more. All of those are negative cardiac behaviors.”
Yet, Hernandez and Sirna believe there is hope for Debbie Downer. “There are exercises where [more pessimistic people] can start looking at some of the positive things that are happening in life and every day,” Hernandez says.
Sirna recommends pessimists look outside themselves to become healthier by volunteering, whether it’s spending time helping others at a hospital or at school. “Volunteer work and helping others have shown to increase our overall happiness more than a higher paycheck,” Sirna says. “Money hasn’t been shown to increase happiness, but certainly a feeling of accomplishment and helping others has been a trait of happy people.”
Carrie Jackson is convinced that a positive outlook in life has helped her manage everything from her overall health to growing as a person by trying new activities. The Evanston native echoes Sirna’s recommendation to volunteer and socialize as much as possible, two things she does on a regular basis. “I don’t get sick often; I don’t spend much time at home, and I rarely pass an opportunity to go out, meet people or get to learn something new,” she says.
For those who might not be as outgoing as she is, Jackson recommends starting small by taking a walk outside. “There is something for everyone,” she admits. “Connecting with others is important to my overall health and well-being.”
Originally published in the Spring 2016 print edition.
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