Taking it to Heart: the Connection between Mental Illness and Heart Disease

July 21, 2013

Mental Illness and Heart Disease

by Carolyn Heintz

For years, researchers have deliberated the symbiotic connection between mental illness and heart disease. Not only do those living with mental illness have a propensity for developing heart disease, but individuals diagnosed with heart disease are often likely to develop mental health problems. This reciprocal relationship is a complex one that requires vigilance in both (1) actively working to improve heart health and (2) maintaining positive and open communication with your doctors.


Preventing Heart Disease when You Have Preexisting Mental Health Issues


Unfortunately, those living with mental illness are likely to engage in unhealthy heart behaviors like smoking and a poor diet. Additionally, these individuals often suffer from high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which only increase their chances of developing heart disease. The key is to promote heart health by making some necessary lifestyle changes.

First of all, physical activity is absolutely crucial; even adding a short walk after meals can make a substantial difference. For those living with mental illness, it can be difficult to find the motivation for fitness. The key is to find activities that you truly find enjoyable, preferably with a friend or partner who will hold you accountable to routine exercise. Sign up for a salsa dance class, go on regular hikes, whatever you find gratifying—just be sure to do something to get your heart rate up.

Second, adopt a more balanced diet. Remember: moderation is the name of the game. An occasional treat is perfectly acceptable (go for that cupcake!) but don’t overdo it. Operate by the 80/20 rule: 80% of the time make responsible diet choices and leave 20% for treats. Also, make a conscious effort to incorporate more fruits and veggies into your diet and reduce your sodium (salt) intake. Look for choices that are high in fiber and avoid foods that contain bad fats (like saturated and trans-fats). Portion control is also advisable: pay attention to deceptive serving sizes on the “Nutrition Facts” table.

Third, consider adding supplements to your routine. Both fish oil and flaxseed are said to have a beneficial impact on your heart health; but make sure you follow the recommended dosage. In line with this preventative thinking, consider adding preventative screenings to your yearly routine. These health screenings give you a greater awareness of your body and your health and can help avoid health problems later on in life.


Maintaining Mental Health after Heart Disease Diagnosis


            It’s a two-way street; a heart disease diagnosis can also spur mental health problems. According to Harvard Mental Health Letter’s “Depression and Heart Disease: Mind and mood affect the heart,” nearly half of all hospitalized heart patients experience some sort of symptoms of depression and up to 20% of said patients will actually develop depression.

Receiving a heart disease diagnosis is a terrifying experience, but it is vital to maintain positive communication with your cardiologist. Ask questions, ask for advice, and don’t be afraid or embarrassed to talk to your doctor about any mental health issues you may experience. Be open about what you are feeling and be receptive to your cardiologist’s advice; you will not shock them with any negative feelings—they’ve seen it all before and can offer valuable guidance over the course of your treatment. Most importantly, remember that half of heart disease patients are feeling the same thing you are and you are not alone.

Mind over Matter


            The link between the body and mind is powerful and undeniable. As many of you know, mental illness affects your entire body and the heart is no exception. I know it can be difficult, but it is absolutely crucial to maintain a healthy heart in order to live a full, healthy life. Whether you live with mental illness or heart disease, don’t underestimate the link between the two and make whatever necessary changes to keep both in check.



Image Source: Wikimedia Commons; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Love_heart.jpg