Keeping an optimistic outlook on life may result in a healthier heart, according to a new study of more than 4,900 people of Latino/Hispanic ancestry living in the United States.
The study is one of the first to investigate the link between emotional well-being and cardiac health in a large diverse sample of Hispanic/Latino adults.
The researchers found that each percentage point increase in optimism was associated with a better cardiovascular health score among participants; on the other hand, very few people who scored low in optimism met the criteria for ideal heart health.
“Each unit increase in a Latino adult’s level of optimism was associated with 3 percent higher odds of meeting the criteria for ideal cardiovascular health across four or more metrics,” said principal investigator Rosalba Hernandez, Ph.D., a professor of social work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“The correlation between optimism and cardiovascular health was consistent across heritage groups, regardless of age, sex, nativity status or level of acculturation.”
Although several earlier studies — including a 2015 study by Hernandez — found an association between a positive mental outlook and cardiovascular health, the samples in those studies contained primarily Latinos of Mexican descent, Hernandez said. To find out whether the effect persisted across heritage groups, the new study used a sample that was much more diverse.
Latinos of Mexican heritage composed more than 37 percent of the participants, followed by Latinos of Cuban descent (20 percent), Puerto Rican (15.5 percent), Dominican (11.5 percent), Central American (7.4 percent) and South American (4.7 percent) ancestries.
Participants’ cardiovascular health was evaluated by using the American Heart Association’s “Life’s Simple 7” metrics, which include blood pressure, body mass index, fasting plasma glucose and serum cholesterol levels, dietary intake, physical activity and tobacco use.
Each person’s level of dispositional optimism, an expectation that good things will happen in the future, was measured using the Life Orientation Test-Revised. The test asks participants how much they agree with statements such as, “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.” Possible scores range from six (least optimistic) to 30 (most optimistic).
The findings revealed that levels of optimism differed by ancestry: Latinos of Cuban and Central American heritage were the most optimistic, while Latinos of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage were the least optimistic. In addition, participants with the highest levels of optimism also tended to be older, married or living with a partner, better educated and more affluent.
Latinos born outside the U.S. have 50 percent lower rates of cardiovascular disease compared with Latinos who are born in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study suggests that tapping into psychological assets such as optimism may offer effective, low-cost strategies for improving the cardiovascular health of some of these Latino populations.
“Problems with access to health care, affordability and the shortage of psychologists and psychiatrists who speak Spanish are significant challenges for Latino populations in the U.S.,” Hernandez said. “We need to find accessible, cost-effective ways of utilizing technology to help vulnerable populations.”
In a related project, Hernandez is studying whether people with high blood pressure can be taught to be more optimistic, and if greater optimism, in turn, can moderate hypertension. Both that project and the current study were funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
“We don’t know much about the connections between emotional and physical health,” Hernandez said. “However, if we can identify certain strengths within a population that can be used to improve their health, that would be fantastic.”
The sample for the current study was drawn from the Sociocultural Ancillary Study, which explored socioeconomic, cultural and psychosocial influences on Latinos’ health.