Letter from the Editor: Heart health, mental health closely tied

Some 8 million deaths a year can be linked to mental health issues, from depression to eating disorders — but that’s a deceptively low number. People who suffer from mental illness are more likely to suffer from a chronic illness or engage in unhealthy behaviors which contribute to a higher mortality rate, twice that of the general population.

Among those chronic illnesses, studies have found again and again, is heart disease:  high blood pressure, cardiac arrest, stroke, congestive heart failure, arrhythmia, peripheral artery disease, and more.

New research continues to support these findings. The American Heart Association hosted its annual Scientific Sessions in Philadelphia from Nov. 16 to 18. The event allows researchers and clinicians to share the latest advances in cardiovascular science each year. Among those studies is yet more evidence that heart health and mental health are linked. The research presented this year found particular links between women’s cardiovascular health and their mental well-being. Among the findings presented this year:

  • A strong link exists between depression and heart disease or stroke
  • The way women with existing heart disease respond to stress puts them at increased risk for heart attack and stroke; the same is not true for men
  • Postmenopausal women in certain high-stress jobs like healthcare, social work and retail had poorer heart health than women in other jobs
  • Female vets with PTSD have more risk factors for heart disease than female vets without PTSD, and at a younger age

Researchers are still investigating which is the chicken and which is the egg: the old thinking was that people react to mental health issues with poor health habits, causing heart disease. But new research is beginning to suggest that there are there biological and chemical factors that trigger both kinds of disorders.

So how can women, especially those who struggle with depression, anxiety and stress management, keep their hearts healthy? Take this advice from the American Psychiatric Association:

Talk to your doctor. He or she can help you determine the appropriate treatment plan.

Focus on changing one habit at a time (exercise, healthy eating, etc.). Setting reasonable goals makes it more likely that you’ll accomplish them, instead of trying to change your entire lifestyle at once.

Know the symptoms of depression. While we tend to think of depression as just feelings of extreme sadness, depression can also manifest as numbness, anger or irritability for no discernible reason, insomnia or wanting to sleep all the time, eating too much or too little, and loss of interest in hobbies or pleasurable activities. While these feelings are normal after a life-changing event, if they persist for more than two weeks, talk to your doctor.

Try to find ways to manage your stress. Some sources of stress are impossible to reduce — jobs, families, finances. But we can find better ways to manage them through exercise, meditation and talking to a professional like a psychologist. Doing so will not only help prevent heart disease, but can also help speed recovery from a heart attack when uses along with other intensive lifestyle changes.

Rely on your support system. Enlist the aid of friends, family, and work associates. Talk with them about your condition and what they can do to help. Social support is particularly critical for overcoming feelings of depression and isolation during recovery from a heart attack.

A qualified psychologist can provide all kinds of help in managing the behaviors associated with heart diseases and your general mental health. If you’re looking for a therapist, psychologytoday.com/us/therapists is a good place to start; enter your city and state. From there you can narrow the field based on your necessary criteria.

Don’t forget that Friday, Feb. 6, is Go Red for Women’s Heart Health. Wear your red to remind everyone you know that your heart matters.