When we consider ways to stay heart-healthy, we often think of lifestyle factors such as what foods we eat, and how much exercise we do. While these factors have a huge role to play in maintaining a healthy heart, there is another aspect of our wellbeing that can impact our cardiovascular health: our mental health. The connection between our mind and heart is a complex one, and recent studies are beginning to show how our mental health can have an impact on our cardiovascular health.
Stress – a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation – can play a key role in the development of mental health issues and is a significant contributor to cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk.1 Stress responses can be adaptive, such as when it helps us to deal with a threat, or maladaptive, such as when it interferes with our health.2 Today, we often experience unmitigated maladaptive stress which can result in a negative impact on our health and happiness.3
Through the activation of physiological systems such as the sympathetic nervous system, which mediates the fight-or-flight response, stress induces an array of responses such as: the release of hormones including cortisol, an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and also a suppression of the immune system.1, 4
While stress responses can have positive effects in the short-term, chronic stress can lead to sustained effects, many of which are factors that can contribute to an increased risk of developing CVD and cardiovascular events.5 Similarly, vital exhaustion (commonly referred to as burnout) is something typically caused by chronic stress, and has been shown to lead to a 20% increase in the risk of developing atrial fibrillation – a condition that is often the cause of blood clots forming, which can lead to stroke, heart failure, and other CV complications.6,7
However, there are several measures that can be taken which could help to reduce CVD risk from stress, and other associated mental health issues:
- Stress management techniques such as mindfulness have been shown to improve mental health and are associated with less stress and higher levels of well-being.8 Additionally, higher levels of mindfulness are associated with a lower likelihood of having cardiovascular risk factors.8
- It is known that exercise can directly reduce the risk of CVD, by reducing risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels – however, recent evidence also suggests that partaking in exercise may also be more effective for improving mental well-being when compared to medication, or even therapies such as psychotherapy.5, 9
- Management of mental health issues such as depression through the use of psychotherapies, including talking therapy, has also been shown to have an impact on cardiovascular health. Evidence suggests that people who saw an improvement in their symptoms of depression after taking part in talking therapy also had a 10–15% lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared to those who saw no improvement in their depression symptoms following therapy.10
At this year’s European Society of Cardiology congress, we have been working with Claudia Garbrecht, a psychologist and fitness trainer, to host an interactive booth event discussing the importance of cultivating better heart health by taking care of mental health and well-being. “Being able to recognise the link between stress and cardiovascular health is vital in identifying the significance of a holistic health approach to overall cardiovascular well-being. While lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise are known to directly improve cardiovascular health, they only represent a couple of pieces in the puzzle that helps to explain how cardiovascular disease develops. Because of this, I believe that true well-being comes from a holistic approach of looking after both your mental and physical health!”
At Daiichi Sankyo, we care for every heartbeat, and we understand that no single approach to improving cardiovascular health works for everybody. That is why we believe a holistic approach that brings together a variety of healthcare experts is needed if we are to help reduce the impact of cardiovascular disease across Europe.