Heart disease: It’s the top killer in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is the leading cause of death across all genders, races, and ethnic groups. To put it into perspective, heart disease claims a life every 37 seconds—killing 647,000 Americans every year. That means it’s responsible for 1 out of every 4 deaths. And it’s costing the U.S. around $219 billion (with a “B”) each year.
Heart disease (aka cardiovascular disease) comes in many forms: coronary artery disease, heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias), congenital heart defects, and more. And most forms can be prevented and even treated with healthier lifestyle choices. In fact, scientists estimate that half of the deaths due to cardiovascular disease can be prevented, and upwards of 80% of the instances of heart disease are preventable.
No wonder doctors and other health-care practitioners are regularly harping on us to take care of our circulatory system, which not only includes your ticker but also the miles and miles and miles (approximately 100,000 miles worth) of blood vessels that carry blood to and from your heart to the cells, tissues, and organs of your body. And of course, that includes a consistent exercise plan combined with eating a whole-food, nutrient-dense, healthy diet.
Yet there is another important component: positive thinking and heart health.
Positive Thinking and Heart Health
What kind of mindset contributes to a healthy heart? A positive outlook is a great place to start. Yes, believe it or not, research confirms that being optimistic (feeling positive or confident in future outcomes), cheerful, grateful, and embracing a sense of purpose can actually protect the heart from disease.
Positive thinking can really make that much of a difference? Absolutely!
In one study, researchers in the U.K. collected data from over 8,000 people, and they discovered that the folks who were the most optimistic and had the greatest sense of well-being experienced a 30% lower risk of developing heart disease.
What’s more, another study—this time, with data from over 70,000 women spanning 10 years—found the most optimistic women had a 38% lower risk of death from heart attacks and a 39% lower risk from strokes.
Even more promising, a new study published in JAMA Network Open, which analyzed data from 15 studies comprising 229,391 patients, found that folks with a positive outlook enjoyed a 35% reduction in cardiovascular events and an 18% reduction in early death when compared to those with a pessimistic outlook.
These are not small effects. In fact, they surpass—by a significant margin—the effects typically expected from taking common heart medications.
This is big because people who have cardiovascular disease have a really high risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke. The U.S. Health and Retirement Study found that optimism decreased the risk of having a heart attack by 38%. Specifically, those with a positive outlook had a 32% lower risk, and those who had a sense of purpose in life had a 27% lower chance.
In three different studies with hundreds of patients comparing positive thinking and heart health, even those who had serious complications from heart disease improved their health when they embraced a positive outlook. After a coronary bypass or stenting, for example, those who were the most optimistic had a lower risk of hospitalization after the procedure.
Why Is Positive Thinking So Healing for the Heart?
It turns out that people who are more likely to view the proverbial glass as half-empty—who are more likely to focus on the problems rather than the good around them—tend to experience a higher release of stress hormones, a more profound physiological response to stress, and thus, higher heart rate and blood pressure.
Positive thinkers, on the other hand, are less likely to experience this stress response. They, therefore, may avoid some of the damage that stress can inflict on their cardiovascular systems. What’s more, studies have also reported associations between pessimism and increased inflammation, impaired endothelial (the interior surface of blood and lymphatic vessels) function, poor metabolic function, and reduced telomere length.
In addition, your outlook can also affect your behaviors. For example, studies typically show an association between optimism and better health behaviors. People who have a more positive outlook are also likely to look for healthier coping strategies to manage stress and overcome obstacles. Pessimists, on the other hand, are more likely to use unhealthy coping strategies such as self-medicating with substances or food.
Another study looked at people with heart failure who kept a gratitude journal where they listed three or four things they were grateful for each day over two months. They found that the participants experienced reduced levels of markers of inflammation, and they had lower heart rates even during stressful exercise.
Can You Train Yourself to Be a More Positive Thinker?
Many people believe they are the way they are; they were born a pessimist or optimist. But positive thinking isn’t just a personality trait. It’s a skill, and that means it’s something we can train our brains to change. In other words, we can learn to think differently, and here are some of the top methods to help you improve your positive thinking skills (and your heart health):
- Be more mindful
- Practice loving-kindness meditation
- Have more self-compassion
- Get help when you need it (for example, if you’re feeling depressed or experiencing grief)
- Let go of anger toward yourself and others (for example, learn to walk it off)
- Help others
- Invest in your life purpose
- Smile more (even fake smiling seems to work)
- Laugh more (and search for humor even in difficult times)
- Don’t take yourself so seriously
- Surround yourself with positive-minded friends
- Release negative thoughts
- Learn to reframe and accept that change is a part of life
- Focus on the positive
- Take action to resolve a problem rather than putting it off or hoping it will take care of itself
It may not happen overnight, but with some practice, your outlook will become increasingly more positive. As it does, what you’ll likely discover is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, the more positives in life you seek, the more you’ll find. Feels kind of heart-warming, even heart-healing, doesn’t it?
While a positive outlook is a powerful tool for protecting your cardiovascular health, you don’t want to forget about the other important variables. Maintain a regular exercise routine, stay physically active (which is not the same as exercising regularly), consume a healthy diet comprised of mostly whole, nutrient-dense foods, get plenty of sleep, don’t smoke, manage your blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) and blood pressure, and limit alcohol. While there are many ingredients in the formula for heart-health success, don’t underestimate the powerful combination of positive thinking and heart health.