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A Bright Outlook May Dim Stroke Risk

How do you think this day is going to go? This week? The upcoming year and beyond? Do you generally expect that more good things than bad will happen and that most of your goals and expectations will be met? Then you’re probably an optimist, and that may bode well for your heart—and, according to new research—your brain.

Some studies linking optimism to heart health found that it may help reduce the risk for coronary heart disease (clogging of the arteries leading to the heart), of being re-hospitalized after heart bypass surgery, and of dying from heart disease. And a brand new study in the journal Stroke indicates that protection may spill over to the brain as well—optimists may have a lower risk of stroke.1

Specifically, 6,044 men and women who had never had a stroke were tracked for two years as part of a University of Michigan study. At the study’s start they were given a questionnaire measuring optimism. It turned out that, on a 16-point scale, each point increase in optimism correlated with a 9 percent reduction in stroke risk. The math isn’t as straightforward as it seems (trust me, I went back and forth on this with the lead researcher), but this means scoring 4 points on the optimism scale translated to a 31 percent drop in stroke risk. What’s fascinating about this is that optimism was protective even if a person had other risk factors for stroke, such as being overweight or exercising less.

Does this mean that just by expecting that you won’t get a stroke, you won’t? It’s probably not quite so simple. “We think that optimists tend to have healthier lifestyles, which contribute to the protective effect. That’s what past studies on heart disease suggest: that optimists generally eat healthier diets, exercise more and take vitamins more regularly. And optimists in cardiac rehab adhere more closely to the diet, exercise and other components of the program. But because diet and supplement use wasn’t collected in this study, we can’t tell if they play a role, but we speculate they might,” says lead researcher Eric Kim, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. And, he emphasizes, this study is about associations—it doesn’t prove cause and effect.

Because stroke is the third leading cause of death (after heart disease and cancer) and, even if you survive a stroke, you can remain disabled, you want to summon every means of prevention. A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain—usually a select section of the brain—is halted. Sometimes it’s because a clot blocked an artery (ischemic stroke); other strokes are caused by a blood vessel rupturing (hemorrhagic stroke). Strokes can be massive and deadly, or hardly noticeable, or somewhere in between causing a person to temporarily affect speech, movement or some other function, which can eventually return to normal. You could have transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) and not even notice—it’s when a blood clot temporarily blocks an artery.

While the optimism link is being hashed out, there are other ways to help reduce stroke risk:

Keep blood pressure and blood sugar in the normal range.
Don’t smoke.
Stay physically active.
Maintain a healthy body weight.
Eat a diet low in saturated fat and sodium, and rich in fruits and vegetables (like the Smart Balance® Food Plan).

And if optimism does prove protective, though you tend to take a dimmer view, there are ways to improve your outlook. A good place to start is Martin Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism (Knopf, 1991).

1. Kim, E.S., et al. Dispositional Optimism Protects Older Adults From Stroke: The Health and Retirement Study. Stroke. 2011;published online before print July 21 2011

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