Stress kills. Or does it? Various studies released in recent weeks give a mixed review of how much a person's personality, coping mechanisms and plain old happiness affect the ability to handle life's tribulations and live longer as a result.
First comes a mega study -- a review of 160 research projects involving people and animals -- done by scientists at the University of Illinois at Champaign, published in the journal Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being.
"We reviewed eight different types of studies," said Ed Diener, professor emeritus of psychology and lead author. "The general conclusion from each type of study is that your subjective well-being, that is, feeling positive about your life, not stressed out, not depressed, contributes to both longevity and better health among healthy populations."
The studies in the review ranged from a 40-year follow-up of university students to lab studies of animals kept in overcrowded conditions to human lab studies of stress hormones that showed impacts on everything from wound healing and immune response to heart disease.
But then a new book that examines the lifelong experience of 1,500 kids starting when they were 10, looking for clues to longevity, tells a different story. The experiment was launched by Stanford psychologist Louis Termian in 1921 and was picked up in the 1990s by Howard Friedman, a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside and colleagues.
His team reviewed interviews, evaluations and death certificates amassed over the years to conclude that happiness and a rosy disposition as a kid may not make for a long life. In fact, most people in the study who were like that as children died young.
Those who lived longer were less cheerful and joking as kids, and as adults lived prudently and persistently, even if not always happily.
While an optimistic approach may help someone through a crisis, Friedman says, "we found that as a general life-orientation, too much of a sense that 'everything will be just fine' can be dangerous because it can lead one to be careless about things that are important to health and long life. Happiness and health go together because they have common roots," he said.
Still another lab study showed that how a person's body responds to challenging situations like giving a speech to a room full of strangers can predict how they respond to stress.
Writing in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, Judith Carroll of the University of Pittsburgh noted that most people show increased heart rate and blood pressure when they have to perform like that, but a subgroup also had increases in a blood marker for inflammation of the arteries. "People who have the biggest increases in this marker are the ones who show the greatest emotional responses to the task," she said.
Other studies have shown that negative feelings and stress hormones can even block or reduce the beneficial effect of medications.
A report out this week from Ohio State shows that prayer can be a stress buffer, too, even for people who are not particularly religious.
Researchers there showed in a series of studies that people who were provoked by insulting comments from a stranger had less anger and aggression shortly afterward if, in the meantime, they said a short prayer for a third person.
Brad Bushman, one of the co-authors and a professor of communication and psychology, said the act of praying probably helped change the way the student volunteers were dealing with the negative emotions. Just thinking of another person for a minute or two had no similar impact.
"We found that prayer really can help people cope with their anger, probably by helping them change how they view the events that angered them and helping them take it less personally," he said.
The effect of prayer at calming held true no matter what religious affiliation the person had, or how often they attended religious services or prayed in their daily life.
Contact Lee Bowman at BowmanL@shns.com