Your attitude: How does it affect your heart?
How you think. How you feel. Your
outlook on life. Could these possibly affect your cardiovascular fitness?
The scientific community is beginning to think they can. While conclusions
and guidelines are still being debated, a link between mental health and
heart health seems to be emerging.
The depression factor
Mounting evidence suggests that where
there is depression, there may be heart disease, too. A recent study reported
an increased risk for coronary heart disease in people with depression,
an illness that affects between 17 million and 20 million Americans a
In the first study of its kind to
examine the effects of depression on heart patients, researchers took
pains to analyze data separately for women and men. All told, the authors
found that depressed women were at a 73 percent greater risk for coronary
heart disease events than women who were not depressed. However, the depressed
women were not at an increased risk of dying from those events. Men, on
the other hand, had a 71 percent greater risk of a coronary heart disease
incident and were also 2.34 times more at risk of dying from them than
men who were not depressed.
Other studies point to a connection
between heart disease and depression. In one, patients who already were
diagnosed with both heart disease and clinical depression had more difficulty
working and socializing and reported more heart disease symptoms than
those cardiac patients who did not show signs of depression. The study
concluded that depression—even a minor episode—should not
go untreated in heart patients.
The anger effect
Recent research findings suggest that anger and hostility may also be hard on
the heart. Nearly 13,000 people were studied for six years, none of whom had
experienced a heart attack when the study began. By the end of the study, 256
participants had had heart attacks. Those who scored highest on an anger questionnaire
administered at the study’s start were almost three times more likely
to have suffered a heart attack or sudden cardiac death than those who scored
lowest on the anger scale. Individuals who scored moderately on the anger scale
were 35 percent more likely to experience such an event. Significantly, these
findings held true even after accounting for other risk factors such as smoking,
diabetes, cholesterol levels and weight.
A separate study also pointed to possible connections between anger and heart
disease. University of Pittsburgh researchers studied 200 healthy 47-year-old
women who were asked about their anger levels, anxiety and public discomfort.
About five years after the women experienced menopause, researchers used ultrasound
to examine the thickness of the women’s carotid arteries, which supply
blood to the brain. They found that half the women were developing plaque build-up
in their arteries, an indicator of possible heart disease. The women with the
buildup were more likely to be those who suppressed negative emotions such as
In yet another study, German researchers followed 150 people with atherosclerosis,
or narrowed arteries, for two years. The subjects underwent angiography at the
beginning and at the end of the study and also filled out questionnaires assessing
their levels of social support, anger and hostility. At the study’s conclusion,
those who had reported high levels of anger and low levels of social support
were more likely to have their atherosclerosis worsen.
Let it out: Gentle ways to blow off steam
• Figure out which people or events press your buttons and learn
to avoid or adapt as needed.
• Try asserting yourself in
a calm manner when something bothers you instead of exploding or holding
• Control your inner reactions
to anger: Breathe deeply from your belly, not your chest. Think of a relaxing
experience, either from memory or imagination.
They don’t call it a hearty laugh for nothing
Turns out a hearty sense of humor may do the heart a world of good. University
of Maryland researchers studied 150 patients who had experienced either
a heart attack or bypass surgery and used two questionnaires to compare
their sense of humor to that of 150 healthy people.
The first questionnaire asked them to rate the humor they found in 20
hypothetical situations; the second measured their anger and hostility
levels. What researchers found: Patients with heart disease were about
half as likely as the healthy group to respond with laughter. What’s
more, the lower their humor score, the higher their levels of anger and
hostility—two factors that may increase blood pressure and possibly
Can laughter protect the heart? Researchers don’t know for sure,
but they do point out that laughter releases opioid-like compounds in
the brain and lowers pulse and blood pressure. More studies are under
way, but in the meantime, researchers are wondering whether laugh therapy
should be incorporated into cardiac rehabilitation programs.