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A New Beat on Heart Health

by Lauren Salani, LCSW, BCB

During the American Heart Association’s November Scientific Session 2023, a study was presented that linked depression and anxiety to poorer heart health. This study adds to a growing volume of research that shows a clear association between a person’s psychological health and their risk for cardiovascular disease.

In the presented study, led by Giovanni Civieri, M.D., a Research Fellow at the Cardiovascular Imaging Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School of Boston stated that, “although the exact mechanism for the connection between psychological health and cardiological risk factors is not completely known, we have identified a mechanism that links the two factors.”

In his observational study, he and his colleagues studied the data from 71,262 adults, average age 49, 45% men, from December 2010 to December 2020, who were enrolled in the Brigham Biobank in Boston. They had no previous heart condition. They then looked for the time, over ten years of follow up, it took for these people to develop a new cardiovascular risk factor.

They discovered:

38% of the adults in the study developed a new cardiovascular risk factor, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or type-2 diabetes during the 10 year follow up period.

Adults who were previously diagnosed with anxiety or depression developed a new risk factor on average six months earlier than those adults without depression or anxiety.

Depression and anxiety increased the risk for heart attack or stroke by 35%.

About 40% of the connection between depression and anxiety and major heart events could be explained by more rapid development of heart disease risk factors.

Adults with a greater genetic vulnerability to stress tended to develop their first cardiovascular risk factor at an earlier age, on an average of 1.5 years earlier than the adults without the genetic vulnerability.

In conclusion of their study, the researchers stated that “depression and anxiety might induce brain changes that trigger downstream effects in the body, such as increased inflammation and fat deposition.”

These findings bring attention to the need for people with depression and anxiety to be screened for heart disease risk factors by their physicians. Glenn N. Levine M.D., Master Clinician and Professor of Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Chief of the Cardiology Section at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, both in Houston said that “these are things we want to aggressively refer people to mental health professionals for.”

People with depression and anxiety are also urged to take the initiative to make appointments for frequent cardiovascular health screenings. It may take the help of a family member or friend to initiate the process as depression and anxiety can limit people’s ability and desire to take care of themselves. They may not see that there can be many great ideas for how to make the movement of exercise enjoyable and part of one’s lifestyle. Learning how to prepare and be satisfied with healthy fresh foods is a natural part of having more energy and feeling well. Being in a good mood and reaching out to others for social connection is a valuable way to support one’s heart health.

Depression and anxiety are conditions that can interfere with the motivation to be healthier and they should not be ignored. People should speak to their health care professionals concerning their mental health and their heart health to minimize and prevent the development of heart disease risk factors.

Choices now exist for addressing depression and anxiety. Psychotherapy that utilizes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the more traditional therapy for both conditions. Biofeedback Therapy that incorporates mindfulness is also an effective treatment for anxiety. A person learns to self-regulate their mind-body-system using signals from their own body to better handle stress and promote a calm sense of well-being. The literature yields positive outcomes and emphasizes the effectiveness of connected mental health solutions using biofeedback for anxiety.

In a recent review of the current literature, published in the Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback (HRV-B) was rated as effective – level 5 (highest rating) for unipolar depression. In HRV Biofeedback, a person learns to synchronize their breath, their heartbeat, and positive emotion to create a sense of calm well-being. These techniques can be used on an on-going basis to better handle negative mind-body states and encourage better self-care.

If you or a loved one struggles with depression, anxiety or heart disease risk factors, seeking the proper treatment will increase life’s enjoyment and longevity.

Lauren A. Salani, LCSW, BCB

Stress Relief Services

Atlantic Executive Center

107 Monmouth Road, Suite 104

West Long Branch, NJ 07764



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