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The American Heart Association Makes the Heart-Mind Connection Official - Everyday Health

Colloquially and intuitively, we have perceived a link between mental health and heart health for a long time. When we feel really sad, for instance, we say we have a “broken heart.” We use the word “heartfelt” to describe deep, genuine feelings. When we feel super worried about something, we exclaim, “I almost had a heart attack!”

A slam dunk on research demonstrating this link has been missing — but over time, evidence supporting the connection between mind and heart health has accumulated. So much so that the American Heart Association (AHA) recently issued a statement recognizing the relationship and recommending tending to mental well-being as part of the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disorders.

Why is this statement so important?

Because while some are increasingly aware of the mind-body connection, it’s considered New Age mumbo jumbo to others. Further, the medical care most people receive does not always consider this connection. The AHA’s statement — an acknowledgement that the link exists — is one step toward resolving this barrier.

But the real power comes in spreading the knowledge that’s accumulated over time to the people it matters to the most — you. Here are the key takeaways from the AHA’s statement and why they should matter to you. 

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The Statistics Support a Link Between Mental Illness and Heart Disease

There’s a lot of evidence that mental health and heart health are connected.

  • Depression has been linked to an increased incidence of hypertension (high blood pressure), disease of the major heart vessels, and myocardial infarction (heart attacks).
  • Anxiety has been shown to affect the blood vessels that supply oxygen to the heart and increase the incidence of heart failure.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder, like anxiety and depression, has been linked to an increase in disease in the heart’s major blood vessels.

General Psychological Health Plays a Role, Too

Research shows that negative psychological factors like anger and pessimism are related to worse heart health. Conversely, positive psychological factors like optimism and mindfulness are associated with better heart health.

  • Work-related stress, chronic feelings of stress for any reason, and frequent anger are all associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
  • Pessimism is related to an increase in death in those with heart disease.
  • Being optimistic and having a sense of purpose are both related to a decrease in heart disease and death in those with heart disease.
  • Gratitude has been associated with better outcomes in those with heart disease.
  • Mindfulness (like a meditation practice) is associated with better heart health.

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Mental Health and Healthy Behaviors Are Connected

Those who feel better engage in healthier habits. Although this may seem obvious, there is also research showing that having better psychological health makes a person more likely to eat well, exercise, take prescribed medication, go to preventive health visits, and not smoke.

But there’s more to this story. Research shows that mental health affects heart health independently of health behaviors. Poor mental health is associated with disturbances in blood sugar, cholesterol levels, and the function of platelets (blood cells important to blood clotting). It’s also associated with higher levels of inflammation, which has been demonstrated to contribute to both diabetes and heart disease.

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Research on Which Psychological Treatments Are Best for Heart Health Is Less Developed

Although there is a lot of research on the way psychological health impacts heart health, there is less research currently available on which psychological treatments are best for the heart.

Here are the current leading contenders as to what may help:

  • Eat a plant-based diet and exercise. Research shows that eating a plant-predominant diet (including vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains) decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety and reduces risk factors of heart disease. Similarly, physical activity has been associated with both improved mental wellness and cardiovascular health.
  • Practice mindfulness. The AHA states that, given that meditation is low cost, low risk, and accessible, it can be considered an appropriate intervention to reduce the risk of heart disease when used with other current guidelines.
  • Don’t wait to act. All too often, people think that they need a big problem to seek help. The AHA statement emphasizes that dealing with psychological issues, whether it is a clinical issue like depression or a seemingly smaller problem like feeling stressed out by work is essential to overall health. If you feel depressed or anxious enough that if affects your daily life, or if you are down, negative, angry, or stressed out, consider starting a meditation habit, reading self-help books, seeing a therapist, or reaching out to a counselor in your religious community.
  • Put your d octors in touch with one other. Having separate specialists is common, but it’s important that your doctors communicate about your care. If your doctors are not already collaborating with one another over your care, request that one reaches out to the others. This will help ensure that you receive the most comprehensive care, taking into account you as a person and the health challenges you face.