Monday, February 22, 2010

A Happy Heart may be a Healthier Heart

By Felicia K. Wong, M.D.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. The month of February, “American Heart Month”, is dedicated to raising awareness about heart disease and increasing knowledge about prevention. In this post, I will discuss the connection between mental health and heart disease.

Depression is a risk factor for heart disease

Many studies have shown that negative emotions such as depression, anger and stress are risk factors for heart disease. The February 2006 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter notes that, “the recurrence of cardiovascular events is more closely linked to depression than to high cholesterol, smoking, high blood pressure or diabetes”. Antidepressant treatment may benefit depressed heart patients and possibly reduce their risk for future heart problems. Cardiac rehabilitation programs that provide patients with stress reduction and wellness strategies may also help reduce the impact that depression has on heart disease.

Happiness may protect against heart disease

People with a tendency to experience positive emotions, such happiness, enthusiasm and contentment, are less likely to develop heart disease than those who tend not to experience it, suggests a new study published in the February 17 advance online issue of the European Heart Journal, led by Karina Davidson, Ph.D. of Columbia University Medical Center. Dr. Davidson’s research team followed 1739 healthy adults living in Nova Scotia for 10 years and examined the impact of positive personality traits on heart disease risk. They found that the people in the study with the most negative emotions had the highest risk for heart disease, whereas those who scored highest for happiness had the lowest risk for heart disease.

The researchers’ speculations about how positive emotions might confer long-term protection against heart disease include:

Happy people may have a healthier lifestyle that decreases cardiac risk - eating and sleeping better, exercising more, and smoking less.

Happiness may promote a host of positive physical and chemical changes - such a reduction in stress hormones -- that are good for the heart.

There may be a genetic component - people who are predisposed to happiness might also be predisposed to have fewer heart attacks.

Davidson’s findings suggest that preventive strategies may be enhanced not only by reducing depressive symptoms but also by increasing positive affect. However, she states that the findings should be confirmed via clinical trials before making any clinical recommendations.

In the meantime, those interested in these preliminary findings can begin to take some simple steps to increase their positive affect. Dr. Davidson recommends, "If you enjoy reading novels, but never get around to it, commit to getting 15 minutes or so of [daily] reading in. If walking or listening to music improves your mood, get those activities in your schedule. Essentially, spending some few minutes each day truly relaxed and enjoying yourself is certainly good for your mental health, and may improve your physical health as well."

For more on the study, including theories on how happiness may protect the heart, as well as tips on how naturally negative people can become happy, please see the following article.

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