Warning: Pessimism Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Kudos to the American Heart Association and its journal Circulation for confirming something I know to be true: Optimism is healthy. The converse is also true: Pessimism is hazardous to your health.

AHA posted a summary Aug. 10 of a study published by the journal that found:

  • Optimistic women have a lower risk of developing heart disease and dying than pessimistic women.
  • Pessimistic African-American women in particular had a higher risk of dying in the study.
  • Researchers say it is unclear whether interventions to change attitudes can alter risk.

That third one surprised me, but it makes sense. Losing a job or a loved one can be devastating and demoralizing -- which is why safety professionals and risk managers do what they do, to prevent as many life-changing injuries or fatalities as possible -- but the survivor's basic concept of the world and those in it really won't change.

AHA said the study's authors also concluded women "with a high degree of cynical hostility -- harboring hostile thoughts toward others or having a general mistrust of people -- were at higher risk of dying; however, their risk of developing heart disease was not altered."

"As a physician, I'd like to see people try to reduce their negativity in general," Hilary A. Tindle, M.D., MPH, lead author of the study and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, said in AHA's release on the findings. "The majority of evidence suggests that sustained, high degrees of negativity are hazardous to health."

This was the largest study to date (97,253 women -- 89,259 white, 7,994 black, ages 50 to 79, from the Women’s Health Initiative) to prospectively study whether optimism and cynical hostility in post-menopausal white and black American women were associated with health outcomes. It found optimistic women had a 9 percent lower risk than pessimistic ones of developing heart disease and a 14 percent lower risk of dying from any cause after more than eight years of follow-up. Women with a high degree of cynical hostility were 16 percent more likely to die during eight years of follow-up than those without it. Optimism was defined as answering "yes" to questions such as: "In unclear times, I usually expect the best." Pessimism was defined as answering "yes" to questions such as: "If something can go wrong for me, it will."

I hope this month's health care reform town hall meeting participants will take note.

Posted by Jerry Laws on Aug 14, 2009