- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Cheer up. Researchers have confirmed what a Bible proverb set forth long ago: A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.

Higher levels of optimism can cut the risk of cardiovascular death in half, said a Dutch study published yesterday in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association.

It’s all a matter of “dispositional optimism” — a positive, expectant, upbeat attitude toward life.

Dr. Erik J. Giltay of the Institute of Mental Health in Delft, the Netherlands, followed 545 men ages 64 to 84 from 1985 to 2000. The subjects were asked the same pertinent questions at five-year intervals: Did the men still “expect much from life?” Did they look forward to the future with plans in place?

The men were given scores, divided into groups according to levels of optimism and had their health assessed. The cheery ones fared better, Dr. Giltay said.

“Optimism can be estimated easily and is stable over long periods,” he noted, though he was not sure whether “interventions aimed at improving an older individual’s level of optimism” could reduce the number of deaths from heart disease.

Others have heralded the value of the merry heart. Physicians at the University of California at Irvine, for example, issued a specific prescription in a study released four years ago: “Go ahead. Laugh.”

A laugh — even the expectation of one — boosts the immune system and releases endorphins and other relaxation hormones, said Dr. Lee Berk of the university’s Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

“There may be a biology to the concept of hope,” he said at the time.

Dr. Berk found that the levels of stress hormones in 24 test subjects dropped by as much as 70 percent when they watched a funny video. Their white blood cells — the kinds that attack viruses and tumor cells — also became more active. The effects last long after the video, he found.

A 2002 Harvard Medical School study found that men with a happy outlook breathe better.

“Optimism was linked to improved lung function,” Dr. Rosalind Wright noted after following almost 700 men over an eight-year period, gauging their outlook with personality tests and a trio of lung exams.

Optimists also report a “higher quality of life” than pessimistic counterparts plagued with “poor physical and mental functioning,” according to the Mayo Clinic Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, which followed 447 adults over a 30-year period.

Carnegie Mellon University psychologist Vicki Hegelson found that heart patients who handle their recoveries with a positive outlook are less likely to have a second coronary event. Optimism helped “establish a sense of control over health, restoring damaged self-esteem,” she noted in her 1999 study of almost 300 men and women with coronary artery disease.


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