Can my personality increase my risk of heart disease?

Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
If your demeanor is more like the Grinch or Mr. Scrooge than Mary Poppins, you're more likely to experience heart trouble. So says the literature on personality traits and heart disease, which has linked hostility, anger, and social isolation to a higher risk of cardiac woes.

The notion that personality can affect heart disease risk dates to the 1950s, when two cardiologists first observed that people with "Type A" personalities, who are hard-charging, competitive, and aggressive, are more at risk for heart disease than others. It turns out that's not entirely true. Some Type A people are happy and healthy, while others are not. As research has continued into specific elements of the Type A personality that put people at risk, one trait in particular -- anger -- seems to be very toxic to the heart. People who are angry or hostile are two to three times as likely to have a heart attack or other cardiac event as others, according to one review article. Taming your rage with an anger-management program could help, however.

More recently, doctors have turned their attention to people with "Type D" personalities, who tend to have negative emotions, suppress these emotions, and avoid social contact. Although Type D's appear to have poorer outcomes from heart disease, a study found no evidence of compromised heart function in people with Type D personality without documented heart disease.

Other research shows that men and women who live alone are more likely to have a heart attack or die suddenly from one. Adults who live alone are also more likely to smoke, be obese, and have high cholesterol levels than those who do not live alone, and they tend to see the doctor less often. On the flip side, older adults with a strong network of friends and family are significantly less likely to die over a 10-year period than those with a smaller network of friends. Friends and family, it seems, can inspire (or nag) you to take better care of your health. Divorce, loss of a spouse or companion, retirement, and relocation can all contribute to your becoming isolated from friends and family.

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