Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Don't Worry. Be Happy and Avoid Heart Disease

A 10-year Canadian study tracked nearly 2,000 adults to determine whether attitude affects the development of heart disease. The study, published just last week, is thought to be the first to show a relationship between emotion and heart disease.

"Being happy means you have less likelihood of having a heart attack 10 years later," said psychologist Karina Davidson, director of the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. "What we don't know yet is if you're not a happy person and you were to get an intervention to help you increase your happiness, would that offset your risk?"

The research team looked at the association between positive affect (which was defined as “the experience of pleasurable emotions such as joy, happiness, excitement, enthusiasm and contentment”) and cardiovascular events in 1,739 adults in the 1995 Nova Scotia Health Survey. Trained nurses interviewed the 862 men and 877 women.

"We had to wait quite a few years as these people had heart attacks, and then we looked to see whether being happy predicted fewer heart attacks, and indeed it did."

Over the 10-year period, researchers discovered that participants with no positive affect were approximately 22% more likely to have heart attack or angina than those with a little positive affect, who were themselves at 22 per cent higher risk than those with moderate positive affect. However, Davidson warns that this is an observational study, and rigorous clinical trials are needed to support the findings.

From my view as a functional medicine physician, however, these findings make perfect sense to me. Happy people, those who don't take things too seriously, have lower levels of stress cortisol, compared with type-A people with higher stress-induced cortisol levels. They also tend to have stronger, closer support networks. All of these attributes leave them happier, healthier and longer lived.