Teenagers with positive psychological assets like optimism and feeling loved are more likely to reach their 20s and 30s in good cardiometabolic health.
A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that teens who felt happy, optimistic, had good self-esteem, felt loved and felt a sense of belonging had better cardiometabolic health later in life compared to their peers without these positive psychological assets.
“We studied 5 mental health assets (optimism, happiness, self-esteem, belongingness, and feeling loved) that were reported by young people when they were teenagers and examined their impact on cardiovascular health in adulthood, which we assessed using 7 biological factors related to heart disease,” Farah Qureshi, Sc.D., M.H.S., lead author of the study and an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore told Theravive.
“We found that youth who had more of these assets were more likely to reach adulthood in good health and to maintain it over time. Which is pretty impressive when you consider how our study spanned over 20 years!”
In undertaking the study, the researchers looked at data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.
This followed 3500 high schoolers in the United States in 1994 for more than two decades.
During this period, data was collected on the wellbeing and health of the students. The most recently collected data was in 2018, when the average age of the participants was 38.
The research adds to a growing collection of studies that highlight the link between mental health and physical health.
“A growing body of research finds that how we feel can have an important bearing on our heart health. Work among older adults has shown that depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental stress can predispose heart disease, but perhaps more interestingly we also find that distinctly positive aspects of our mental health – feelings of happiness, optimism, and an overall sense of psychological well-being – are related to more positive health states. In our study, we were interested in seeing if this was also true when looking early in life,” Qureshi said.
The researchers found that overall, 55% of the youth who participated had zero to one positive phycological asset. 29% had two to three and 16% had four to five.
The teens who had four to five positive psychological assets were 69% more likely to maintain positive cardiometabolic health when they were young adults.
Whilst psychological assets had a protective health effect for all races and ethnicities studied, Black youth were found to have the most health benefits from such psychological assets.
The study authors found that black youth reported having more positive psychological assets than young people in any other racial or ethnic group.
“A lot of research with youth – especially youth of color – focuses more on the risks they face and less on the resources they need to thrive. We wanted to shift the discussion around heart health to a space where we think more about strengths we can leverage to help young people stay healthy longer,” Qureshi said.
“Interestingly, we found that not having these assets has a particularly strong impact on the health of black teens compared to white teens. Absent of these resources, we know black youth face more structural barriers to good health that white youth don’t face, like discrimination and structural racism. So our thinking is that not having these assets may have a bigger impact on Black youth because of the greater risks they face.”
Whilst Black youth has the most positive psychological assets of any group studied, and therefore derived the most health benefit, there were still racial disparities in cardiometabolic health in adulthood.
The study found Black participants were the least likely to maintain good cardiometabolic health over time.
The study authors argue their findings suggest that mental health could play just as important a role in cardiometabolic health as other factors.
“For a long time, we’ve thought that diet and exercise are the keys to maintaining heart health, but our study suggests that our mental health may be just as important, especially among youth,” Qureshi said.
“We should all be working to create a society where young people are valued and validated. What this means for caregivers and teachers is that it’s important to create home and school environments where kids feel loved and accepted for who they are regardless any negative messages they may hear in the outside world. These should be places where they feel safe and are reminded early and often that they are important and cared for.”