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The Surprising Link Between Mental Health and Heart Disease

The connection between mental health and heart disease is nothing new to health care professionals. Doctors have long known that behaviors associated with certain mental health disorders can increase the risk of heart disease, but that might not be the whole story. Research now shows that the connection between mental health and heart disease could be physiological as well as behavioral.

Individually, heart disease and mental health issues each pose a serious threat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is among the top causes of death and disability in the United States, while mood disorders are the third most common cause of hospitalization in Americans under 45. In conjunction, heart and mental health conditions can exacerbate one another, putting those who suffer from both at even greater risk. If you suffer from mental health issues or heart disease, understanding this link can be the key to improving your quality of life.

Behavioral Connections

According to the American Heart Association, health care professionals once believed that the connection between mental health and heart disease was solely behavioral. A person suffering from depression may seek solace in unhealthy foods, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, or a sedentary lifestyle. These coping behaviors can increase the risk of many heart-related issues, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol. However, it turns out that this is only one aspect of the relationship between mental and cardiovascular health.

The Impact of Stress on Heart Health

Mental health issues can also have a biochemical impact on heart health. Stress, anxiety, and depression — whether temporary or as part of a chronic disorder — can increase the release of so-called "stress hormones" like adrenaline and cortisol.

Increased levels of these hormones, especially for a prolonged period of time, can affect your blood pressure and heart rate. This makes stress and other mental health issues additional risk factors for heart disease.

How Heart Disease Can Affect Mental Health

Just as mental health conditions can increase a person's risk of heart disease, heart disease can also cause or intensify mental health issues like depression or anxiety. The two conditions can feed off of one another, creating a dangerous cycle.

Suffering from an acute heart condition like a heart attack or stroke can cause additional physical, mental, and emotional stress. The same can be said for chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease, which can drastically impact your daily routine.

Heart conditions can also cause stress in unexpected ways. Expensive medical bills can cause financial anxiety, while the strain of dealing with heart disease can impact loved ones and caretakers.

Management and Prevention

A healthy lifestyle is always essential to the prevention or management of heart disease. But when you throw mental health issues into the mix, those healthy habits — such as eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, or quitting smoking — become even more critical for both preventive care and disease management.

Because mental health and heart disease are so closely linked, the ability to cope with stress is critical to a healthy lifestyle. If you are someone who has a strong physical and emotional reaction to stress, effective stress management could be key to reducing your risk of heart disease. According to the American Psychological Association, a healthy routine for stress relief can be just as important as other lifestyle factors when it comes to improving your heart health.

Because mental health issues and heart disease are so intertwined, getting either condition under control can positively impact the other. Taking care of your mind and body means ensuring your brain and heart are working in tandem and as best they can, and your doctor can help you get one or both back on track.

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