Happiness and heart health
To ward off heart disease, you might want to lose weight. Quit smoking. Manage your cholesterol and blood pressure. And maybe you should stop being such a sourpuss.
Researchers led by Karina Davidson at Columbia University Medical Center analyzed 10 years of data about 1,739 healthy adults who participated in the 1995 Nova Scotia Health Survey. In short, they found that those who had what psychologists call "positive affect"--a generally upbeat, enthusiastic and content view of life--had a lower risk of heart disease than those with less cheery demeanors.
Because participants' degree of positive affect had been measured on a five-point scale, researchers could see that each one-point increase brought a 22 percent risk reduction. Remarkably, that held true even for folks who, along with their positive affect, had some degree of negative affect--feelings of sadness or depression. Positive affect is thought to be a stable, life-long trait that's not altered by temporary bouts of negative affect, the study says.
Unfortunately, as is the case with so many studies, this one, published in the European Heart Journal, showed only a link, not a cause-and-effect relationship. The authors note that clinical trials are underway to determine whether positive affect actually causes better heart health. Until that relationship is established, they write, the medical community can't really start prescribing happiness as a protective or preventive measure.
Nor is the mechanism by which positive affect might improve cardiovascular health well understood. Perhaps, the authors suggest, generally happy people deal with stress better than their less-happy peers, or get more sleep, or are less likely to smoke. Or happiness may have some physiological impact on heart rhythm. Any of those factors could influence heart health.
An editorial that accompanies the study notes that cardiovascular disease and major depression have long been associated, but nobody knows whether one causes the other or whether both are caused by some third factor common to both conditions. The new research may offer fresh ways to evaluate that relationship and perhaps devise therapeutic interventions.
Still, the authors note that there's no reason people can't try to build more joy into their lives, whether it helps their hearts or not. Here's a nifty quote from Davidson, taken from the press release announcing the study:
"Like the observational finding that moderate wine consumption is healthy (and enjoyable), at this point ordinary people can ensure they have some pleasurable activities in their daily lives," she said. "Some people wait for their two weeks of vacation to have fun, and that would be analogous to binge drinking (moderation and consistency, not deprivation and binging, is what is needed). If you enjoy reading novels, but never get around to it, commit to getting 15 minutes or so of reading in. If walking or listening to music improves your mood, get those activities in your schedule. Essentially, spending some few minutes each day truly relaxed and enjoying yourself is certainly good for your mental health, and may improve your physical health as well (although this is, as yet, not confirmed)."
Do you think your affect is more positive or negative? Keep your answer in mind as you take today's poll:
Jennifer LaRue Huget
February 17, 2010; 7:01 PM ET
Categories: Cardiovascular Health , General Health , Psychology , Stress | Tags: don't worry be happy, happiness and heart health, mood and heart health, positive affect good for your heart
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