How are heart disease and mental health linked? Research has shown that there is an overwhelming connection between the health of the mind and the body. Many medical professionals agree that the development, causes, and outcomes of a physical illness are determined from the interaction of psychological, social, and biological factors. So, it would stand to reason that particular bodily organs can be dramatically affected by conditions like depression, anxiety, chronic stress, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As the month of February is dedicated to Heart Health, Open Mind Health explores the ways that the heart and mind are intricately connected, as well as steps that can be taken to reduce negative health consequences to both.
People that experience prolonged periods of mental illness often suffer from physiologic effects to the body, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, reduced blood flow to the heart, and heightened levels of cortisol (which can also increase blood pressure and affect your body’s immune response). These changes can lead to calcium buildup in the arteries, metabolic disorders and, ultimately, to heart disease. Many mental health conditions make it challenging for those suffering to make healthy, rational decisions. For example, active symptoms of many mental illnesses can increase risky health behaviors such as smoking, drug or alcohol abuse, decreased physical activity, and the misuse of prescription medications. Certain groups of people are especially vulnerable and at high risk, including veterans suffering from PTSD, couples where one of the partners has PTSD, and individuals struggling with poverty or homelessness.
Just as mental health issues can lead to heart complications, the reverse can also be true.
After an acute heart problem, factors such as pain, fear of death or disability, and even financial problems can lead to increases in anxiety and depression. The physical pain or mental anguish may push someone towards substance abuse as a coping mechanism. Thus, a vicious cycle begins; a person feels more and more out of control which, in turn, only worsens anxiety and depression further.
So, while the connection between heart health and mental wellness is well established, solving the associated problems is not as clear-cut. However, there are steps that mental health professionals, families, and loved ones can take to mitigate the increased risks of heart disease that may affect those with mental illnesses:
Proactively provide access to appropriate services and supports to increase healthy behaviors (e.g., increased physical activity, improved diet, and reduced smoking).
Advocate for patient treatment by a multidisciplinary team of professionals that focuses on the mind-body connection.
Talk to patients about the cause and effect of mental health and heart disease.
Incorporate mental health screening and treatment into physical care surrounding both a major heart disease event and chronic heart disease.
Communicate to individuals and their family members and loved ones that there are options for treating anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions following a heart problem.
For patients with mental health disorders and pre-existing heart disease or significant heart risk factors, other proactive measures may be required, including prescribing different psychiatric medications that are more “metabolically friendly,” along with close medical monitoring and management.
The bottom line is that there is no magic bullet when it comes to eliminating the physical side-effects of mental illness. However, the first steps are clear; recognize and acknowledge the heart and mind connection and remove any barriers or stigma associated with getting proper mental health treatment.
For more information about the link between mental health and heart disease, Open Mind Health recommends the following articles:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Interactive Atlas of Heart Disease and Stroke
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Mental Health
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey
Cleveland Clinic: Depression & Heart Disease external icon
National Institute of Mental Health: Chronic Illness & Mental Health external icon
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)–Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA): Center for Integrated Health Solutions external icon
World Health Organization: Mental Health external icon