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Optimism, heart health and longevity: Unraveling the link for black Americans

A positive attitude has been linked to better heart health and a longer life. But is this true for black Americans, whose average lifespan is about 72 years, compared to an average lifespan of 77 years for all Americans?

Recent results of the nation’s largest and longest study of cardiovascular risk factors in black Americans, the Jackson heart study, suggest the answer is a mixed yes. Cardiovascular disease, which causes heart attacks and strokes, is the leading cause of death and disability worldwide. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the association between optimism and longevity among Black Americans appears to be strongest among those with a higher level of education or income, and those aged 55 and over. less. It was also found to be stronger in men than in women.

Is optimism the only key to longevity in this study?

Probably not. There’s another possible explanation for these findings, says Dr. Rishi Wadhera, a cardiologist at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC).

“Instead of optimism leading to better health, it’s possible that healthier individuals are simply more optimistic, or less healthy individuals are less optimistic,” he says. This so-called reverse causation – when cause and effect are the opposite of what is supposed – is always a possibility in observational studies, even when scientists try to control possible confounding factors such as health conditions and behaviors, as they did in this case. to study.

“Nevertheless, these results contribute to a body of evidence that suggests that psychosocial resources, mood and mental health are all associated with health,” says Dr Wadhera, who is section chief for health policy and Equity Research at the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Center for Cardiology Outcomes Research at BIDMC.

Measuring optimism in the study

Led by researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, the study included 2,652 women and 1,444 men who were part of the Jackson Heart Study. The researchers measured optimism using the Life Orientation Test – Revised, which includes questions such as “In times of uncertainty, I usually expect the best.” Responses are scored on a scale of 0 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). The researchers administered this test and others between 2000 and 2004, and tracked mortality among study participants through 2018.

Optimism – the general belief that good things will happen – may be partly inherited, although genetic factors are thought to explain only about 20% to 30% of this trait. Some research suggests that people can improve their feelings of optimism either through cognitive behavioral therapy or through writing exercises that focus on imagining their “best possible future self.”

Looking forward

Yet optimism is just one of many intertwined social factors that influence how long people live. A better understanding of the biological pathways that could potentially explain the results observed in this study can help, says Dr. Wadhera.

“But to meaningfully address the alarming and pervasive health inequalities that exist in our country, we must address the unacceptable gaps in care and resources that exist between different racial and ethnic groups,” he adds. . This includes disparities in health insurance coverage, access to health care, neighborhood factors such as access to green spaces and healthy foods, and environmental stressors such as exposure to Pollution. “It could help people and communities from all walks of life live longer and happier lives,” says Dr Wadhera.

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