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What does the mind have to do with the heart?

Heart health is of great focus among the medical community. The entire month of February is dedicated to heart health awareness. Yet, there’s an element people may not immediately think of when it comes to their heart: the mind.

The Mind’s Impact on the Heart

Research has clearly shown that negative psychological health adversely affects the heart. For example, chronic negative psychological health such as pessimism, loneliness, anger, hostility, anxiety, stress and depression are associated with up to a 100% increased risk of cardiovascular events. Poor mental health is also correlated with other negative health issues, including dementia.

The mechanisms by which negative psychological health affects the heart and overall health are manifold - but include habits such as poor eating, smoking and alcohol abuse. Negative psychological health also increases stress hormones. A severe stressor in one’s life, such as losing a loved one, can lead to broken heart syndrome.

“In addition to the increased cardiovascular risk, negative mental health also impairs our ability to take care of cardiac patients. Patients who have mental health issues tend to be less willing or likely to take medications because of mental health issues,” states Dr. Bhrigu Parmar, Medical Director for Cardiac Rehab and the Echo Lab at Skagit Regional Health.

Dr. Bhrigu Parmar, Medical Director

On the flip side is positive psychological health. This includes happiness, optimism, gratitude, sense of purpose and life satisfaction. Some of these characteristics are associated with up to a 50% reduction in cardiovascular events. “We should really all try for positive mental health in our daily lives,” adds Dr. Parmar.

The Heart’s Impact on the Mind

With respect to how cardiovascular health impacts the mind, research has shown that heart diseases are associated with increased psychological illnesses such as anxiety and depression. Being diagnosed with a disease often leads to fear, anger and a significant adjustment in one’s lifestyle.

“It is really crucial we manage these mental health issues in patients. Unfortunately, these are often underdiagnosed in patients in general, particularly cardiac patients. We are so focused on the heart. I think it’s critical that patients bring this up when seeing their cardiologist, so there is more discussion on the topic,” urges Dr. Parmar.

Taking Care of Both Your Heart and Mind

Individuals can take proactive steps to protect both their heart and mind. A healthy diet is recommended to keep both in check. Dr. Parmar suggests following something similar to the Mediterranean diet - a vegetarian-friendly diet that is rich in tree nuts, avocados, extra virgin olive oil and dark leafy greens. It’s also important to avoid meats, particularly red meat and minimize processed foods.

Equally essential is regular physical activity. This doesn’t mean you have to run a marathon each day. Anything that raises your heart rate to a healthy level is advantageous.

“I think any activity is good, whether it's gardening or cleaning your house. As long as you're doing vigorous activity that is getting your heart rate up for as few as five minutes. I think it's adequate to help, but obviously, more is merrier,” notes Dr. Parmar.

Another heart/mind healthy strategy one might not think about is the practice of being mindful. Mindfulness has been shown to improve cardiovascular health - up to 50% reduction in cardiovascular events. With a few simple tactics, performed each day (or multiple times throughout the day), people can bring more calm into their lives.

“Mindfulness, as the name literally suggests, basically means you are deliberately and actively present in the moment while watching our thoughts and emotions in a non-judgmental manner. For example, when most of us are driving, our mind is kind of wandering all over the place and we may have some anxiety or agitation,” explains Dr. Parmar. “Instead, you can work on being more purposeful, enjoying the surroundings and acknowledging your emotions without acting on them.”

He suggests taking about five minutes each day to find a quiet place and do some deep breathing. Even something this simple can make a big difference in psychological health and thus heart health.

For more information on the heart-mind connection, visit our website.

To hear Dr. Parmar discuss this topic further, click here to listen to the Be Well Podcast |Mind Heart Connection.