When it comes to health considerations, most people tend to focus on the human body’s parts over the whole. In actuality, however, nothing occurs in our bodies entirely in a vacuum.
The human anatomy and the homeostasis it supports is an incredibly complex puzzle that is dependent on each piece. Even today, with all of modern medicine’s achievements and knowledge, there is still so much we don’t know. For instance, it only recently came to light that the gut can have a direct impact on mood.
On a similar note, a new report just released by the American Heart Association is urging anyone concerned about their heart and cardiovascular health not to neglect their mental well-being. Researchers say strong mental health and psychological well-being “can positively impact” one’s risk of suffering a stroke or developing heart disease. Conversely, poor mental health is linked to negative heart health outcomes.
Dubbed the “mind-heart-body connection,” the relationship between mental well-being and heart health is yet another reason why matters of the mind should never be shrugged off or ignored. Society told us for decades to simply toughen up if we’re feeling down or forlorn, with the implication being mental health issues aren’t “real problems.” Well, it doesn’t get any more real than heart attacks and strokes.
“A person’s mind, heart and body are all interconnected and interdependent in what can be termed ‘the mind-heart-body-connection,'” says chair of the writing committee for this statement Glenn N. Levine, M.D., FAHA, master clinician and professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, and chief of the cardiology section at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center. “Research has clearly demonstrated that negative psychological factors, personality traits and mental health disorders can negatively impact cardiovascular health. On the other hand, studies have found positive psychological attributes are associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality.”
Diving into specifics a bit further, researchers say common mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, chronic stress, anger, and even general pessimism or dissatisfaction with one’s life have all been linked to adverse cardiovascular events/developments including heart palpitations, high blood pressure, increased inflammation, and lack of blood flow to the heart. Although not heart-related, many dealing with mental health issues report stomach or digestion problems as well.
On the other end of the spectrum, plenty of research suggests that particularly positive or strong mental health fosters lower odds of heart issues. People who score high on measures of happiness, life satisfaction, optimism, gratitude, and sense of purpose generally tend to have lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and inflammation as well as better glucose control.
“The data is consistent, suggesting that positive psychological traits play a part in better cardiovascular health,” Dr. Levine notes.
What’s driving the connection between psychological states and heart health? To a certain degree, behavior patterns must be involved. It’s well known that when we’re feeling down, stressed out, or anxious, it’s comforting to fall back on less-than-healthy habits. Lounging on the couch all day, tons of junk food, alcohol; all of these lifestyle choices are seen quite frequently among the depressed and just happen to also raise the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Meanwhile, people with more robust psychological well-being are known to engage in healthier lifestyle choices like regular exercise, clean eating, and regular medical check-ups.
Social interaction is likely involved as well. Study authors say people with stronger mental health usually have more social relationships and connections. A friend group to lean on during tough times can go a long way toward staving off depressive thoughts and making healthier lifestyle choices.
To be clear, we’re not just talking about depression here. If you lead a lifestyle that exposes you to constant stress and anxiety, all of that strain will eventually take a cardiovascular toll. Prior research that had asked subjects to self-report their usual daily stress levels concluded that the cumulative effect of stress can lead to a 40% higher chance of developing or dying from heart disease.
“Most studies of psychological health are observational, with many involving self-reporting from patients, which presents challenges to establishing specific cause and effect relationships,” Dr. Levine explains. “However, a preponderance of such studies is highly suggestive and allows one to make reasonable conclusions about an association between negative psychological health and cardiovascular risk.”
In summation, the research team believes individuals already being treated for heart issues, as well as those considered to be at high risk of heart disease in the future, should regularly undergo mental health assessments. Recognizing and treating conditions like depression or general anxiety disorder among such individuals could save lives.
“Wellness is more than simply the absence of disease. It is an active process directed toward a healthier, happier and more fulfilling life, and we must strive to reduce negative aspects of psychological health and promote an overall positive and healthy state of being. In patients with or at risk for heart disease, health care professionals need to address the mental wellness of the patient in tandem with the physical conditions affecting the body, such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels, chest pain, etc,” Dr. Levine concludes.
The full article can be found here, published in Circulation.