This Week in Research: Optimism is Good, Cat Poop is Bad

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Here’s a reason no one calls cats “[hu]man’s best friend”:  their poop may be toxic to us. And they deposit approximately 1.2 million tons of it into the environment each year. Researchers at Johns Hopkins are doing the heroic work of, uh, digging deeper into the problem of Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that’s found in feline feces, and that can cause serious health problems.

The people most at risk for Toxoplasma are pregnant women and those with already-compromised immune systems. The parasite has been linked to brain infections and loss of cognitive function, and has been posed as a medical explanation for Crazy Cat Lady Syndrome (not an officially recognized disease).

The good news is, most pet owners don’t have anything to worry about. The real problem we need to address, say the researchers, is the United States’ population of feral cats, which may number as many as 60 million.

Are you cheerful? Great! You’re less likely to have a heart attack! Are you gloomy? Well, this news will probably just make you more so. According to recent research out of Johns Hopkins, people who tend toward optimism are significantly less likely to have a heart attack or sudden cardiac death.

Doctors have long known that depression and anxiety take a toll on the heart. But most of those studies have centered on people with psychiatric diagnoses, and didn’t focus on your garden-variety optimist/pessimist divide. Which, it turns out, is significant:  “If you are by nature a cheerful person and look on the bright side of things, you are more likely to be protected from cardiac events,” study leader Lisa R. Yanek, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says. “A happier temperament has an actual effect on disease and you may be healthier as a result.”

Just how much of a positive effect did a positive attitude have? A sense of well-being was associated with a one-third reduction in coronary events. For people at higher risk (due to genetic disposition or weight or being a smoker), a positive attitude had an even greater effect:  nearly a 50 percent reduction.

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