Women who have a rosier outlook on life may have a leg up on cynics when it comes to heart health and longevity, a new study from the University of Pittsburg suggests. The study expands upon previous research linking optimism to reduced cardiovascular risk in men.

The new study, reported in the August 10, 2009 issue of Circulation studied over 97,000 post−menopausal women who were part of the Women’s Health Initiative. Participants were followed for an average of eight years. Lead author Hilary A. Tindle says that “[i]n addition to looking at hormones and their effect on heart disease and cancer, the study also examined psychosocial and social factors and how they affected the health of postmenopausal women.”

Women who were in the upper quartile for optimism were found to have a 9% reduced risk of developing heart disease.

Questionnaires measured optimism by analyzing the women’s responses to such statements as “[i]n unclear times, I usually expect the best,” and cynicism by their responses to declarations like “It is safer to trust no one.”

Women who were in the upper quartile for optimism were found to have a 9% reduced risk of developing heart disease. Their chances of dying from any cause were reduced by 14%. What about the participants who were cynical and hostile? Their mortality rate was 16% higher than women who were optimistic and trusting.

What’s behind this pattern of findings? Tindle suggest a few different possibilities to explain the results. One is that optimistic women also live healthier lifestyles: says Tindle, these women “didn't smoke as much and tended to exercise more. So their lower risk might just be associated with living healthier."

The second possibility is that optimistic women listen to their doctors’ advice more than pessimistic women. Tindle points out that previous studies have found that optimistic people more often “follow the diet they are told to follow.”

Tindle also suggests that one’s outlook on life might affect how one responds to stressful everyday events. Cynicism and hostility might bring on higher blood pressure and increased heart rate, she says.

The author says she hopes to look into these possibilities in future studies. "We would recruit individuals who are pessimistic, and try to alter their outlook and see if it affects their health," she said.

She suspects it would. "Even the most cynical, hostile individual can change, given the right stimulus, and I see this every day," she said. Along with the many other modifiable factors that contribute to overall health as we age, one’s outlook on life may also be added to the list.