Researcher Rosalba Hernandez

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Maria Hernandez was miserable when she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. She didn’t understand how to manage the disease and thought it was a death sentence. Her frustration motivated her daughter, Rosalba, then a public health graduate student, to look at how illness takes a toll on a person’s emotional health.

But after years of researching the health effects of depression and anxiety, Rosalba Hernandez, Ph.D., is now finding there’s a bright side with real health outcomes of its own: optimism.

Hernandez is one of a handful of American scientists looking at how optimism — having a positive outlook about your future — makes for a healthy heart in Hispanics and Latinos. Final results of her most recent study are pending, but so far the data suggest a better outlook on life translates into better cardiovascular health.

Her interest in optimism developed about six years ago after a church trip to the Arizona-Mexico border to volunteer with immigrant assistance groups. Hernandez, who was born in Chicago, said she wanted to see firsthand what her Mexican immigrant parents lived through when they came to the United States decades ago.

“When I got back home, I thought, if there’s anybody who’s optimistic and resilient, it’s a lot of the immigrants,” said Hernandez, an associate professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “They’re leaving everything. They don’t know what they’re coming to.”

Researcher Rosalba Hernandez and her mother Maria Hernandez

Researcher Rosalba Hernandez and her mother Maria Hernandez.

Hernandez may be on to something.

National surveys over the past 10 years show U.S. Hispanics and Latinos have a positive view of their lives and future — and in some surveys were more upbeat about the future than black and white Americans. In addition, Hispanics and Latinos have a lower rate of heart disease than blacks and whites, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In her new study, Hernandez and her co-investigators are looking at measures of cardiovascular health and optimism scores of nearly 5,000 Hispanic and Latino adults. Some participants already had heart disease. She hopes to publish the findings later this year.

So far, published studies that have linked optimism to a healthier heart have mostly been done in whites, said John M. Ruiz, Ph.D., an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Arizona and one of Hernandez’s co-investigators.

The findings, Ruiz said, could shed light on how optimism in Hispanics and Latinos affects their risk for heart disease and, for those already with heart disease, how they recover from heart surgery. “This is only the beginning.”

But how do doctors tap into someone’s optimism to encourage them to exercise more or eat better? Can someone’s sunnier disposition be used to prevent and treat heart disease in groups of people?

Michigan State University’s Hector González, Ph.D., one of the study’s collaborators, is skeptical.

“How do I make someone more optimistic?” said González, a clinical psychologist whose work has focused on depression and dementia in Hispanics. “How do I make a whole population more optimistic? I don’t know how to do this.”

Still, he said Hernandez’s research is interesting.

For Hernandez, motivating doctors to take a more holistic treatment approach is what she wants to come out of her research. She also hopes it leads to more government funding for mental health services.

What’s now needed, Hernandez said, are long-term studies to determine whether people of any race or ethnicity without heart disease are optimistic because their hearts are healthy or whether their hearts are healthy because of their rosy outlook.

“That gives us more of a clue about causality,” she said. “What came first: the chicken or the egg?”

The inspiration for her research now extends beyond her mother — to the 53 million Hispanics and Latinos living in the United States.

“I am the community I am studying, and that’s why it’s important to me,” Hernandez said.

Today, her 68-year-old mother has her diabetes under control — in part because she likes her doctor, who speaks Spanish. He praises her success in managing the condition and cares about her emotional well-being.

“It seems like she has a happier and a more optimistic future, like, ‘This disease is not taking over my life. I am more than this disease, and I have people who love me,’” said Hernandez, who’s taking a break from her research this month to go on a trip with her mom. The pair are in Rome visiting the Vatican.

Photos courtesy of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Rosalba Hernandez