Women and Optimism: Can a Healthy Outlook Lead to a Healthy Heart?

Is it possible that having a positive outlook can have a positive effect on your health? Experts say “yes.” One U.S. study of nearly 100,000 postmenopausal women found that “optimists were less likely than pessimists to develop coronary heart disease and less likely to die of any cause over the course of the eight-year trial.”

Other studies have shown that optimism has biological benefits that improve health. A 2008 study of 2,873 healthy men and women found that those with a positive attitude had lower levels of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol, even after variables such as age, ethnicity, obesity and other lifestyle factors were taken into account. In women, an upbeat attitude also was associated with lower levels of two markers of inflammation (C-reactive protein and interleukin-6), which predict the risk of heart attack and stroke.

“Stress can adversely affect your health, while optimism has an inverse effect,” said Osnat Shmueli, M.D., a family medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care. “Women with a positive outlook have better ways of coping with stress, which helps keep their stress hormones, blood pressure and heart rate from rising.”

Fewer Hospital Readmissions

Studies also have revealed that optimism helps women cope with disease and recover from surgery. “After having coronary artery bypass graft surgery, optimists have fewer future heart attacks and hospital readmissions,” said Dr. Shmueli. “A positive outlook can lead to behavioral differences that affect recovery and outcomes.”

During cardiac rehabilitation – a program Dr. Shmueli urges all patients to attend following surgery – physical recovery as well as psychological recovery, lifestyle habits and stress management techniques are addressed. “Optimists are more likely to follow this medical advice, take better care of themselves and maintain stronger social support networks, all of which positively impact their recovery,” Dr. Shmueli explained.

Researchers also have found that optimists are more likely to exercise and eat well and less likely to smoke or abuse alcohol. Experts admit that heredity may explain some of the link. The genes that play a part in positivity also may have a direct effect on health.

So, what should you do if you tend to focus on the negative rather than look on the bright side? “Pessimism is not irreversible,” Dr. Shmueli said. “Women can change their attitudes and thought processes to have happier dispositions. Behavioral therapy can provide strategies to turn negative thinking into positive thinking.”

Changing these habits does take time and practice. Dr. Shmueli offers this advice:

  • Focus on things you can control and not things you cannot.
  • Identify thoughts or behaviors you want to change and set small attainable goals.
  • Be aware when you change from a negative to a positive thought. Then, pat yourself on the back. An important first step is recognizing that you have made a change.
  • Surround yourself with positive people.
  • Follow a healthy lifestyle. Exercise at least three times a week and eat healthy to positively affect your mind and body.
  • Smile and laugh often.
  • Practice good posture, and feel powerful and confident.
  • Be grateful, even for the little things you may take for granted.
  • Keep a journal, and start and end every day in a positive way. In the morning, write down three things for which you are thankful. At the end of the day, write down three good things that happened that day.

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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