Behind the headlines

Do optimists really live longer?

Smile, though your heart is aching

“Looking on bright side helps recovery from heart attacks”

- The Times 6 March 2015

This study looked at levels of optimism and depression in people who’d had a heart attack or unstable angina. It was funded by the BHF and led by researchers from University College London. They studied 369 people treated at St George’s Hospital in London for an average of 46 months (nearly four years) following their heart event.

They found that the most optimistic people, with the lowest amount of depressive symptoms, were less likely to have a further heart event, cardiac surgery, or die from cardiac causes compared with the least optimistic people, with the highest amount of depressive symptoms.

“Optimism seemed to protect against the impact of persistent depressive symptoms,” said the researchers. More optimistic people were more likely to give up smoking and start eating fruit and vegetables following their heart attack, which could account for their better health, although no link was found between optimism and how much exercise a person did.

Optimism seemed to protect against the impact of persistent depressive symptoms

This story got a lot of media attention. The story in the Express and the headline in the Daily Mail both suggested a link between optimism and living longer, but the study did not actually look at life expectancy.

The Express also claimed the study shows “a positive mental attitude can prevent the onset of the killer condition”. The research could not show this, because everyone in the study already had heart disease.

Although you might think having a heart attack would affect optimism, researchers said that it is “a moderately stable trait”. The results suggest optimism is linked to better physical and psychological wellbeing, and that optimistic people are more likely to make positive behavioural changes, such as eating well. As cognitive behavioural therapy can increase optimism, the study authors suggested this might be a good way to help recovery.

Dr Mike Knapton, our Associate Medical Director, said: “Suffering from a serious condition like angina or heart attack can take a drastic emotional toll, which we know can lead to depression, further lowering the chances of a full recovery. If you’re living with a heart condition and struggling to cope, we would urge you to contact your GP, who can put you in touch with the necessary support.

“The next steps for this research would be to show psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, to improve optimism can improve the outcomes for pessimistic people.”

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