Don’t Worry, Be Happy: Life Satisfaction Reduces Heart Disease Risk

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Chronic stress and anxiety have long been associated with an increased incidence of cardiac risk factors such as high blood pressure, chest pains and irregular heartbeats. But is the opposite true? Do more laid-back people have healthier hearts? A new study suggests that this could be the case. Being satisfied with several areas of your life, including relationships, work, standard of living and happiness with yourself, can be good for your heart.

British researchers, publishing in the European Heart Journal, studied almost 8,000 civil servants, all members of the Whitehall II study cohort in the UK. The average age was 49 years. The participants were questioned about seven specific areas of their everyday lives, including love relationships, leisure activities, standard of living, job, family, sex, and one’s self. They were asked to rate their satisfaction for each on a scale of one to seven, with the lower numbers indicating “very dissatisfied.” The scores for each domain were combined to provide an average satisfaction score for their overall lives.

Over a follow-up period of about six years, higher levels of overall life satisfaction were associated with a 13% reduced risk of coronary heart disease, as indicated by health records. The domains which produced the most satisfaction included job, family, sex, and self. The reduced risk of heart disease was found in both men and women.

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The findings suggest that people at high risk for heart disease may benefit from programs to boost a positive state of mind, study author Dr. Julia Boehm of Harvard School of Public Health noted. “Interventions to bolster positive psychological states – not just alleviate negative psychological states – may be relevant among high-risk individuals,” she concludes.

Interestingly, love relationships were not associated with reduced risk. Some past studies, including one from last year by University of Chicago professor Dario Maestripieri found that those people who are in a committed romantic relationships (whether married or unmarried) have reduced levels of stress hormones. Unhealthy, elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol, for example, can change the way blood clots, increasing the risk of heart attack.

A separate study from 2009 indicates that strained relationships can boost heart disease risk, especially for women. Intimacy and marital satisfaction appears to be particularly helpful in reducing risk, finds Tim Smith, psychology professor from the University of Utah.

Journal Reference:
J. K. Boehm, C. Peterson, M. Kivimaki, L. D. Kubzansky.Heart health when life is satisfying: evidence from the Whitehall II cohort study. European Heart Journal, 2011; DOI: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehr203

Image by Sophie Dickins via Flickr

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