Depression & Heart Health

Information from the American Heart Association:

How does depression affect the heart?

For years, doctors thought the connection between mental health and heart health was strictly behavioral – such as the person who is feeling down seeking relief from smoking, drinking or eating fatty foods. That thinking has started to change. Research shows there could be physiological connections, too. The biological and chemical factors that trigger mental health issues also could influence heart disease. The head-heart connection should be on everyone’s radar.

Depression and other mental health issues

Many forms of mental health issues can affect heart disease. There’s the temporary state of depression or a more severe, clinical case. You can also have varying levels of anxiety and stress, just to name a few of the most well-known problems. Research does not firmly link stress and heart disease, but there’s a growing belief that it’s an additional risk factor, and maybe even more dangerous than some others. Stress can increase hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, and can impact your blood pressure and heart rate.

How to stay heart healthy -  even when you're down.

When people are stressed, anxious or feeling down, they’re not apt to make the healthy choice because they’re so overwhelmed by their situation. A person’s mental health, in terms of their general health, is often underestimated.

Depression is reported in an estimated 1 in 10 of Americans ages 18 and older, and the figure can be as high as 33 percent for heart attack patients. But just feeling down can lead to changes that can affect your health, and not just because you may fall into habits that are bad for your hearth.

Other physiological things are happening in the body, including increased stress hormones, higher levels of cortisol and higher glucose levels. Taking care of your overall outlook and well-being is as important as taking care of your blood pressure and cholesterol.”

It’s not surprising if you find it hard to get plenty of exercise, eat heart-healthy foods, limit alcohol or kick a smoking habit. All those things can seem like “just one more thing to add to their list of things that is already causing stress. People turn to things that give them comfort and aren’t thinking about whether those things are healthy or not.”

Out with the bad, in with the good

If you’re struggling with stress or anxiety, Dr. Goldberg said that taking three key steps can help.

  • Identify the cause of your stress or anxiety and address it. Seek therapy if necessary. If you’re feeling down for a couple days, that’s OK, but if it goes on for weeks, you should seek help.

  • Choose healthy habits and don't rush it.  If you aren't in the habit of exercising, start gradually rather than putting pressure on yourself to get back to a rigorous routine. Exercise improves your mood while you’re doing it, but long-term studies show that people who exercise report better quality of life overall. Exercise is especially important when you’re struggling with work, family and other life stresses. Some people respond to stressful situations by eating because they’re so stressed out and that’s something that gives them pleasure and relaxes them. If reaching for unhealthy foods has become a habit, try using healthier cooking techniques or reaching for healthy snacks.
  • Incorporate other unhealthy lifestyle habits one a time instead of trying to “fix” everything at once. That’s especially true if one of the habits you want to break is a smoking habit. Quitting smoking is a big deal and difficult to break. Learn about Life's Simple 7 keys to prevention and how to get heart healthy one step at a time.

Links & Resources

Million Hearts

American Heart Association

National Institute of Mental Health- Depression & Chronic Illness

Information by Topic: Depressive Disorders

Cleveland Clinic- Depression & Heart Disease