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How Mental Health Affects Heart Health

How Mental Health Affects Heart Health

Prioritizing mental health doesn’t only improve your moods and relationships, it can potentially lower your risk for heart attack or stroke, too. Heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, is deeply intertwined with some of the most widespread mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

In fact, the connection goes both ways: mental health affects heart health, and cardiovascular disease can contribute to mental health disorders. Here’s what you should know about the link between mental health and heart disease, including heart-healthy ways to navigate emotional lows and manage stress.

From Head to Heart (and Vice Versa)

Heart disease might seem like a purely physical issue, but mental health affects heart health. Up to 40% of people affected by heart disease also fulfill the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder, one of the most common mental health disorders and the most frequently diagnosed type of depression in the U.S. At the same time, people with depression face a higher risk for heart disease.

Statistics like these go to show that our mind and body will always influence each other. The connection is both behavioral and physiological: our thoughts and emotions shape our habits and routines — like how well we sleep, how often we exercise, and how we cope with stress — in addition to impacting heart rate, blood flow, and cortisol levels. And, in turn, our physical health has the power to impact our emotional and social well-being.

Mental Health Disorders and Risk Factors for Heart Disease

According to the CDC, more than half of all Americans will be diagnosed with some type of mental health disorder in their lifetime. And since mental health affects heart health, the prevalence of mental health disorders in the U.S. also means that millions of Americans are at higher risk for heart disease.

The primary drivers of heart disease include both uncontrollable factors like age and family history and ones that we can either modify or treat, including smoking, physical inactivity, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. The correlation between mental health and heart disease stems in part from the overlap between behaviors associated with mental health disorders and risk factors for heart disease. For example, anxiety and depression are both linked to smoking and less active lifestyles.

On top of these key physical risks, there are additional factors for heart disease that relate to your mental well-being, including sleeping habits, alcohol use, diet, and even how happy you feel at work. Given the link between mental health and heart disease, any efforts you make on the self-care front, like prioritizing rest or exploring where you find professional and personal fulfillment, can only help to boost heart health.

Beyond Behavior: Physiological Effects of Mental Health Disorders

The link between mental health and heart disease doesn’t only occur indirectly through behaviors that lead to higher risk. Research has found that mental health disorders cause changes in the body that overlap with risk factors for heart disease, including:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Reduced blood flow to heart
  • Higher levels of inflammation
  • Higher levels of cortisol

Gradually, these physiological effects can lead to calcium accumulation in the arteries and the development of heart disease. 

Depression and Heart Disease

A variety of mental health disorders influence a person’s risk for heart disease, from anxiety to PTSD and chronic stress, but the heart-head connection is particularly strong with depression. Not only are people with depression more likely to develop heart disease, they also face a worse prognosis. Depression can intensify fatigue and contribute to isolation after serious cardiac events, complicating recovery from surgery, heart attacks, and strokes. In addition, heart disease patients with depression may face a higher risk for premature death as well as longer or more frequent hospitalizations.

Research has also found that while having both heart disease and anxiety doubles a patient’s risk of fatality, the combination of depression and heart disease triples it. It’s important for people with heart disease to proactively address symptoms of depression if they appear, regardless of whether they’ve dealt with depression before.

How a Heart Attack Affects Mental Health

Because of the heavy emotional toll of a heart attack, depression is even more common after this type of serious cardiac event than with heart disease overall. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that up to 65% of cardiovascular disease patients who’ve had a heart attack experience depression.

After a heart attack you may have new or deeper feelings of anxiety given the uncertainty of your future. Stepping back from regular roles and responsibilities at work or with family while you recover can bring up complicated feelings and impact your sense of identity.

And if lifestyle habits contributed to your heart attack risk, you may feel a sense of guilt as well. These are all understandable, natural reactions. The important thing is to keep moving forward by taking ownership of your health, which may include seeking mental health treatment. Remember, there’s no shame in getting the support you need, and, in fact, doing so is vital to your physical recovery. 

What’s Good for the Heart is Good for the Mind

The good news is that taking care of your mental health often looks exactly the same as taking care of your heart. Lifestyle changes that help manage heart disease, like following a balanced diet, drinking less, and getting those steps in, can also alleviate symptoms of depression and other mental health disorders.

Plus, happy thoughts are literally good for the heart. Some research suggests that patients with positive outlooks are more likely to make vital lifestyle changes following a heart attack, while gratitude is linked to lower levels of inflammation and better overall heart health. Of course, it’s more difficult to practice gratitude when you’re experiencing the isolation of clinical depression, so if you’re dealing with symptoms, remember that seeking help is taking charge of your well-being — and your heart.

The next time you’re feeling stressed or anxious, center your mind and keep your heart beating strong with these proactive strategies:

  • Do a deep breathing exercise.
  • Check in with yourself by journaling.
  • Try a stress-related guided meditation.
  • Explore visualization strategies to mentally picture a positive outcome to a challenge you’re facing.
  • Consider taking something off your plate at work or at home.

Exceptional Pharmacy Care Every Step of the Way

Heart disease and mental health challenges can feel isolating, but Alto’s expert pharmacists are always on call to help you navigate your health journey. Whether you’re taking medication for heart disease, a mental health disorder, or both, we’re happy to answer any questions you have and deliver your medications right to your doorstep. Text or call 1-800-874-5881 or reach out via in-app messaging at any time.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.