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- For adolescents, feelings of optimism and happiness, along with self-esteem, a sense of belonging, and feeling loved, were associated with better cardiometabolic health years later.
- The link between these positive feelings and good health was especially strong among black youth.
- The researchers suggest that investing in youth mental health may help improve inequities in cardiometabolic health.
Adolescents who feel they belong, are loved and wanted, and are optimistic or happy may have lower risks for cardiometabolic health in adulthood compared to adolescents who feel fewer of these positive emotions, according to a new study published Wednesday.
Although only 12 percent of young adults maintained good cardiometabolic health over time, teens who reported feeling more positive emotions were 69 percent more likely to maintain their health as young adults, the results showed.
The effects were also cumulative. Each additional positive emotion reported by the teens was associated with a 12 percent increase in the likelihood of future good health.
The link is especially prominent among black youth, the data shows, as these teens reported feeling the most positive emotions and derived the most health benefits from them.
The researchers suggest that positive emotions may serve as a buffer against the negative effects of social stress often felt by adolescents.
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“Assets such as optimism and other facets of psychological well-being also predict greater health-enhancing behaviors in multiple domains, including physical activity, diet, and tobacco use,” they wrote in the study.
Fostering these positive emotions in adolescents could not only help prevent cardiometabolic disease, but could also address health inequities, the results suggest.
“We have learned a lot in recent decades about the impact of discrimination and other social risks facing youth of color that may explain their elevated rates of cardiometabolic disease,” said Farah Qureshi, study author and assistant professor at the School of Public Education. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg. Cheers in Baltimore, she said in a statement.
But “much less attention is paid to the inherent strengths they possess and the ways in which those strengths can be leveraged to promote health equity,” Qureshi said. “In this study, we wanted to shift the public health paradigm beyond the traditional focus on deficits to one that focuses on resource creation.”
Data was collected from about 3,500 high school students who were first enrolled in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in 1994. Participants were followed for more than 20 years, with the most recent data collected in 2018, when the age average of the participants was 38.
Based on surveys conducted when participants were teenagers, the five positive mental health values associated with better health outcomes were optimism, happiness, self-esteem, a sense of belonging, and feeling loved.
The researchers compared the survey responses to measures of cardiovascular and metabolic disease risk factors, such as blood sugar levels and inflammation, collected when the participants were in their 20s and 30s.
The greatest health benefits related to positive feelings were seen among black adolescents, although these individuals were less likely to maintain good cardiometabolic health over time.
Qureshi described this finding as contradictory, noting that the absence of positive feelings was particularly harmful to the health of black youth.
“For black youth, who face numerous barriers to achieving and maintaining optimal cardiometabolic health in later life, not having these additional mental health resources makes a world of difference,” Qureshi said. The findings indicate that investing in youth mental health early on can help improve equity in cardiometabolic health.
In the United States, African Americans are 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than their white counterparts, while African Americans are also twice as likely to die from the disease.
Structural racism plays an important role in shaping these health inequalities. But fostering feelings of belonging and optimism can help protect young people from the negative effects of structural racism, the authors said.