Health Team

Optimism might be key to surviving heart disease

Posted March 2, 2011 3:07 p.m. EST
Updated March 2, 2011 7:50 p.m. EST

— A new study published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine reveals that a positive, upbeat outlook might increase a person's chances for surviving heart disease.

Doctors have long encouraged facing any disease with an optimistic, fighting attitude, because it's thought to increase a patient's compliance with recommended treatment and rehabilitation.

Further clinical research is needed to determine whether positivity has any biological effect on the heart, but medical researchers do know that if an optimistic attitude is the opposite of stress, it might be just what the doctor ordered. Stress increases the heart rate and can increase blood pressure, both of which are high-risk factors for a heart attack.

Trish Lumbattis, 50, ignored pain in her jaw and glands around her neck for eight weeks because she thought they were allergy symptoms. But when chest and arm pain landed her in the emergency room, she learned she'd had a heart attack.

"I had like a 95 percent blockage in a main artery. I was like the perfect storm – overweight and stressed," Lumbattis said. 

She decided not to let heart disease get the better of her. 

"I've got to be there for my children, so I knew I had to do something to really not have this happen again," she said.

Lumbattis nourishes her optimism with heart rehabilitation classes, stress management and the support of family, friends and her church.

Research suggests that Lumbattis has the right idea about fighting her disease.

More than 28,000 patients with coronary disease were asked in a questionnaire how strongly they agreed with statements like, "Yes, I will be able to cope with this disease" or "Yes, I can return to a normal life."

"People who agreed with statements like that actually had a mortality rate, over 15 years of follow up, (that) was 30 percent less than those who had less positive expectations," said Redford Williams, a psychologist at Duke University.

Williams, who co-authored the study, said researchers considered the severity of the disease and controlled for factors like depression and low social support, and found that there was still a 25 reduction in mortality.

"It's not just a question of being, you know, a cockeyed optimist here," Williams said. "It's a question of being optimistic, and it may really make a difference."