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Fighting heart disease with a smile

» Case data

» What it means

» What you can do

A dose of conscientiousness helps, too

Patients who are conscientious about taking their medications faithfully and to their doctors’ specifications double their chances of survival, according to a University of Toronto study. The study followed 1,100 patients for two years and found that people who frequently skipped their medication were twice as likely to die.

If you or a loved one has had a heart attack, the doctor’s orders probably sounded something like this: Quit smoking. Start exercising. Slash your saturated fat and cholesterol intake. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Take your medication. But research has uncovered another wellness strategy that might help your heart—your attitude!

Scientists are studying how your frame of mind affects your ability to fight back from heart disease. Although they haven’t found a direct relationship between a positive attitude and a healthy heart, research findings suggest some connection between the two.

Case data

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University studied nearly 300 heart attack patients who underwent angioplasty to clear blocked arteries. Patients were asked to fill out a questionnaire about a variety of topics. Among the areas discussed were the patient’s ability to develop a positive outlook and maintain high self-esteem, his or her involvement in treatment decisions and the likelihood that he or she would quit smoking, eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

Based on the questionnaire results, a score called a “cognitive adaptation” index was assigned to each patient. The study found that patients with a higher index number—those with a positive view of their medical condition and confidence in their ability to control it—were less likely to have another major heart problem six months after the event that led to the angioplasty. On the other hand, those with a lower index number—the pessimistic patients—were about three times more likely to have another cardiac event as their optimistic counterparts.

What it means

A good attitude can’t unclog arteries or strengthen a weakened heart, so how exactly does it affect a heart patient’s outcome? Doctors have a few ideas. They believe that…

  • optimists cope with difficult situations, such as a heart attack, better than others. Instead of remaining anxious and overwhelmed, thereby flooding their systems with harmful stress hormones, positive people handle a heart emergency with a “take-charge” attitude.
  • optimists take better care of themselves and are more likely to follow their doctors’ orders.
  • a negative attitude may stimulate the physiological processes that cause blood vessels to reblock following angioplasty. In addition, patients who experience wide mood swings are more likely to suffer increased episodes of myocardial ischemia, a condition that occurs when the heart doesn’t receive an adequate amount of blood.
  • happy people are more likely to have strong and varied social ties, which has been linked to increased survival in many studies.

What you can do

If you are currently undergoing cardiac rehabilitation or managing a heart condition, don’t let it get you down. Instead, put a positive spin on the efforts you may be making to enjoy improved heart health. Consider these benefits:

You’ll make new friends. Whether they are in your cardiac rehabilitation group or in the mall walking program you join, you’ll meet interesting people who will make your path to better health more of an adventure than a task.

Your taste buds will be happy. Instead of just cutting the fat from your favorite recipes, take the opportunity to try some new ones, too. Many ethnic cuisines are packed with vegetables, flavorful spices and wholesome grains. Try a variety and enjoy the difference.

You’ll gain energy. Right now you may not feel your all-time best, but once you start taking care of your body, you’ll feel the years (and probably even the excess pounds) drop off. Regular physical activity will increase your range of motion and boost your energy levels. Healthy eating will give your body the tools it needs to repair itself.

© 2014 Dowden Health Media