People with pessimistic attitudes are at higher risk of dying from heart disease, according to a new study in BMC Public Health.
The researchers followed 2,267 Finnish 52- to 76-year-olds for 11 years. Participants started by taking a questionnaire to measure their levels of optimism and pessimism. Using a zero-to-four scale, they rated how well statements associated with positivity (e.g. “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best”) or negativity (e.g. “If something can go wrong for me, it will”) described them.
After 11 years, the researchers looked at the optimism and pessimism levels of the 121 subjects who had died from coronary heart disease. Turns out, those who’d died from CHD had been more pessimistic at the start of the study than those who were still alive. Even after controlling for risk factors like smoking and cholesterol levels, the top 25 percent of pessimistic thinkers had more than double the risk CHD-related death of those with the lowest negativity scores.
The study didn’t look into the factors making pessimistic people more vulnerable to dying of CHD, but the researchers think that a bad attitude could cause inflammation that leads to heart problems, says lead researcher Mikko Pänkäläinen, a psychiatrist at the Paijat-Hame Central Hospital in Lahti, Finland. “It has been found, for example, that depressed individuals have higher levels of inflammation markers in their blood,” he says.
Even though pessimism upped death risk, high optimistic scores didn’t protect against CHD-related death. Past studies have shown that overly optimistic people are inclined to take more unhealthy risks, which could be related, says Dr. Pänkäläinen. “Too optimistic people may do unhealthy choices because they think that these choices won’t harm them in any way,” he says. “This might explain at least some of our finding that optimism does not protect from CHD-related death.” (Make a habit of these things cardiologists do to protect their hearts.)
Unlike other studies, this one considered optimism and pessimism as two separate traits, rather than opposite sides of one spectrum. Those who gave high answers to the positive-thinking statements didn’t necessarily have low pessimism scores, so people didn’t fit neatly into one category. “It seems that one can have both optimistic and pessimistic properties simultaneously,” says Dr. Pänkäläinen.
Personality traits develop early in life and remain pretty stable through adulthood, so it could be hard to train yourself out a negative mindset if that’s what you’re used to, says Dr. Pänkäläinen. Your best bet is putting extra effort into healthy habits like exercising regularly and quitting smoking, he says. Still, giving a brighter outlook a try can’t hurt. “We cannot say if changing the attitude will lower the risk of CHD and CHD-related death,” says Dr. Pänkäläinen. “On the other hand, thinking more optimistic does not cause you any harm, I think.”