09/23/2013 01:35 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

Being Happy Can Help Heart Patients Get Healthy -- So Can Cardiac Rehab

Smile. And if you are a heart disease survivor, smile again. As simple as it sounds, new research shows there really is a connection between a positive attitude and heart health.

Scientists discovered that heart patients who maintained good spirits were more likely to live longer and be hospitalized less than those with a negative disposition. The key seems to be that happy people are more likely to exercise.

Studies like this are refreshing because they validate common sense. Of course there's a link between happiness and health. But don't dismiss the importance of such research. As my friend Dr. Vince Bufalino says, fresh evidence like this can be "a weapon" in the fight against heart disease, which is the No. 1 killer of Americans.

"It's nice to be able to say, 'Someone looked at this specific question,'" said Dr. Bufalino, a recipient of the national Physician of the Year award from the American Heart Association, and the Senior Director of Cardiology at Advocate Healthcare in the Chicago suburb of Naperville. "Sometimes the soft science translates to the public better than the hard science."

Other studies have made the connection between happiness and heart health. What makes this research unique is its connection to people who already have heart disease.

Many survivors are understandably gloomy. They may be emotionally exhausted from the fear that comes with facing their own mortality. If their condition required hospitalization, they may ache from the trauma their body just endured.

At their most vulnerable, no amount of research is going to convince them to be upbeat. But once they are ready for it, there's a well-paved road to recovery. It's called cardiac rehabilitation and, unfortunately, it's used by only 14 to 35 percent of patients who are eligible.

Cardiac rehab is a professional supervised program for patients recovering from heart procedures. Specialists provide education and counseling aimed at building physical strength and stamina, and providing the education to make the lifestyle changes to keep their hearts healthier.

The environment alone is therapeutic. There's a can-do spirit from the staff and among patients, many of them likely having been reluctant and grumpy when they arrived. Dr. Bufalino said he sometimes has to challenge people to try it for a month, only to see them stay in the program for three.

"The mental benefit is equal to the physical benefit because people come out energized - feeling better about themselves and having a better approach to life," Dr. Bufalino said. "It's rare, and I would underline rare, for someone who goes to cardiac rehab and doesn't come away saying, 'Wow, that was worth it.'"

Ginny Dow knows this. She's seen it nearly every day for the last 24 years through her work in cardiac rehabilitation at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., and even longer through her mother's battle with heart valve disease.

"My mom taught me to always leave a patient with hope," Dow said. "And cardiac rehab absolutely does that."

Dow's calling to become a nurse stemmed from her mother's experiences. Her formative years in nursing were spent in critical care, which turned her into a big believer in the importance of cardiac rehab. Now she's the head of her hospital's Cardiac Rehabilitation and Prevention Department.

She's discovered that most patients want to learn everything they can from her team of doctors, nurses, physical therapists, exercise physiologists and a dietitian. Among the challenges is teaching patients how to exercise safely, which can be harder than it sounds, physically and mentally.

"I had one patient who was shaking when we went to put her on a treadmill," Dow said. "People are scared to start exercise because they're worried about what will happen with their heart."

Joel Robbins brings another expert's perspective on cardiac rehab -- that of someone who's been through it.

In his youth, Robbins was quite active, playing tennis, swimming and bicycling. As he got older and life became more complicated -- a wife, a son and a daughter, plus a job as a computer network architect -- he worked out less and paid less attention to his diet. It all caught up to him one afternoon when he was helping his family do some yard work. He soon became sick and collapsed.

"I remember thinking, 'This can't be a heart attack. I'm only 44,'" Robbins said.

It was a heart attack -- a big one, the sort that has a low survival rate. Thankfully, his wife called 9-1-1. He ended up needing angioplasty to open a completely blocked artery.

His life spared, Robbins made major changes. He ate better and got moving. He dropped 21 pounds in three weeks, and -- three years later -- he's down more than 55 pounds. He's also become active with our organization, both with his local Heart Walk in Lafayette, Ind., and as an online ambassador.

Robbins is among a crew of survivors who share their stories with others on our Facebook and Twitter pages, offering encouragement and support.

Through this online community, they are pushing fellow heart patients toward greater happiness and, in turn, improved health.

It's enough to make you smile.

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