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The Health Hazards of Pessimism

Can your attitude affect your health? Yes, according to a new study. Optimism appears to be good for your health and pessimism seems to be bad, the study found.

In the largest study of its kind, Hilary Tindle of the University of Pittsburgh and her colleagues studied 97,253 postmenopausal women ages 50 to 79 who participated in the Women's Health Initiative, a massive government-funded project that has examined a variety of women's health issues.

All the women were free of cancer and heart disease when the study started. Among the tests they took was something called the Life Orientation Test Revised Questionnaire, which measures things like optimism and cynical hostility, which is the harboring of hostile thoughts towards others or having a general mistrust of people. Optimism was defined as answering yes to questions like, "In unclear times, I usually expect the best." Pessimism was defined as answering yes to questions like, "If something can go wrong for me it will."

Compared to pessimistic women, those who scored highest for optimism were 9 percent less likely to develop heart disease and 14 percent less likely to die from any cause over the next eight years, the researchers report in the journal Circulation, which is published by the American Heart Association. Those who scored high for cynical hostility were 16 percent more likely to die during the eight years compared with those who scored low, the researchers found.

There was a stronger association between optimism and a low risk of death among African-American women than white women. Among African-American women, optimists had a 33 percent lower risk of death compared to pessimists. Among white women, optimists were 13 percent less likely to die than pessimists.

Optimists also tended to be younger, especially among blacks, live in the West, have higher education and income, have a job and health insurance and attend religious services at least once a week.

Optimists were also less likely to have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depressive symptoms, smoke, be sedentary or overweight. But the relationship between optimism and heart disease and death held up even after taking these pre-existing good health habits into account, the researchers say.

By Rob Stein  |  August 13, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Cardiovascular Health , General Health , Mental Health , Psychology , Women's Health  
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And something tells me that your gut response to the study tells you what group you fall in. For me, it was, "oh, great, just what I need, more evidence I'm screwed." Guess which one I am? :-)

Posted by: laura33 | August 13, 2009 7:56 AM | Report abuse

I would surely hope that young, highly educated, high income, employed, insured, healthy, fit, active and non-depressed people would be optimists. Ask yourself this, are these people healthier because they are optimists, or optimistic because they've built wonderful lives?

Posted by: striker943 | August 13, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps pessimism is a precursor to bad health, not a risk factor. A drop in perceived well being may be a sign that catastrophic illness is on the way.

Posted by: greg3 | August 13, 2009 6:14 PM | Report abuse

This seems like one of those "you can improve your life" things that's not actually a proven principle.

Good health and optimism probably are associated with each other, but how does this prove that one begats the other?

Too often these "findings" boil down to a variation on blame the victim, and short of proof -where' the P-score- I think that's not a good thing to encourage.

Posted by: RedBird27 | August 13, 2009 7:56 PM | Report abuse

No it's not one causes the other. The only thing that can be said that there seems to be a correlation.

It's a worthwhile behavior finding, because it may encourage doctors to screen more carefully for sudden increases in gloomy outlooks.

Pessimism may well be a symptom of depression, especially if it comes on as a behavior change, but even if it's unlinked to depression, it may be worth looking at, as pessimists may be more likely not to take care of their health conditions and experience worse quality of life.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | August 16, 2009 6:32 PM | Report abuse

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