Evidence continues to emerge that our psyche influences heart health.
In a new study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers working under a Pioneer Portfolio grant found that having a sense of purpose in life may help protect older adults with coronary heart disease from heart attacks. The article, “Purpose in Life and Reduced Risk of Myocardial Infarction among Older U.S. Adults with Coronary Heart Disease: A Two-year Follow-up,” comes from researchers at the University of Michigan and the Harvard School of Public Health.
Researchers surveyed more than 1,500 older adults with coronary heart disease and followed up after two years to investigate the association between the occurrence of a heart attack and the degree to which participants had a sense of purpose in their lives, which is typically conceptualized as a person’s sense of directedness and meaning. The study found a significantly reduced risk of heart attack among participants who reported a higher sense of meaning, regardless of socio-demographic differences. Each unit increase in purpose was associated with a 27 percent reduction in the likelihood of a myocardial infarction.
This finding is notable because adults with coronary heart disease, which is the leading cause of death among Americans, are five to seven times more likely to experience a heart attack. Most research focuses on preventive and risk factors contributing to coronary heart disease, and not on resilience factors that help promote health and longevity. The study flows from our work in Positive Health, an emerging concept that explores whether people have health assets that can be strengthened and lead to a healthier life. In contrast, traditional medicine focuses on health risk factors for disease and treatment if it occurs.
In addition to life purpose, the study investigated the association of other positive and negative psychological factors, including optimism, positive affect, anxiety, cynical hostility, and depression with risk of experiencing a heart attack. The study found that all these factors were significantly associated with myocardial infarction rates, but the sense of meaning in one’s life exhibited a protective effect on cardiovascular health above and beyond the presence of these other factors.
Researchers also noted that when people have a strong feeling of meaning in their lives, their will to live may encourage heart health-promoting behaviors, such as exercising, healthy eating, adhering to medical advice, and abstaining from excessive alcohol consumption or smoking.
Learn more about our work in Positive Health.