Feeling good leads
to better health

How anxiety, depression,
PTSD and stress trigger heart
attack or stroke

The evidence has been mounting for years; there are ties between your mental health and your heart health. While treating the heart usually requires lab results and various levels of testing and mental health involve therapy and analysis, depression has been recognized as a major factor for heart disease. Studies have found that untreated or unrecognized depression contributes to an unhealthy lifestyle and that people who had reported high or very high levels of depression and anxiety were more likely to have had a heart attack or stroke than people without those symptoms.

“As much as cardiologists like to put the heart at the top of the pedestal, really, it’s the brain,” says Dr. Connor Healey, a board-certified cardiologist with Capital Cardiology Associates. “The brain controls everything, and it’s the most important organ. It is no big secret that when people are feeling down, it has an impact on your health. Many of the biochemical changes that happen in the brain are associated with grieving, depression, sadness, loss.” What researchers are discovering is that major depression and anxiety is about twice as common in women than men. When we are depressed, we lose motivation to do everyday things like exercise, interact with friends or family, and make unhealthy lifestyle choices, like overeating, drinking, or smoking.

Doctors at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill recently examined the role of PTSD in our veterans. They followed almost one million, middle-aged veterans who served in conflicts in the Middle East for the past decade, who, on average, had no history of stroke. What they found was veterans with PTSD were 61% more likely than others to have a mini-stroke and 36% more likely to have a stroke. “PTSD and anxiety have a negative remodeling effect on the brain that affects the body. As cardiologists, we have seen that the unexpected loss of a loved one released hormones that literally weaken the heart muscle and mimic a heart attack,” stated Dr. Healey. The medical term is takotsubo cardiomyopathy, it’s more commonly known as broken heart syndrome. Sufferers will report feeling chest pain, shortness of breath, or changes in their heart rhythm which are all symptoms of a heart attack.

In the case of the veterans with PTSD, this was the first study to show a link between trauma-induced stress disorders and the risk of stroke and mini-strokes in young and middle-aged adults. More investigation is underway to examine how intense psychological stress, medically produces chronic inflammation which triggers stroke. What we do know is stress is a problem that almost one-third of Americans surveyed say has led to a visit with their doctor. “Our parents didn’t talk about if they were feeling sad or upset. If they were feeling sad, they would be told to deal with it. Now, we have developed the disease model of mental health, where it’s not a choice, it’s based in neuroscience and biochemistry, and some changes are completely out of your control,” added Dr. Healey.

As a country, we are working to better identify mental health hazards and find more effective or healthy ways to manage stress. According to The American Institute of Stress, almost half of Americans report that 80% of workers feel stress on the job. This has led to the workplace debate on taking a “mental health day”— using a sick day to cope with stress or burnout. However, many employers do not embrace missing work due to stress. This year lawmakers in Oregon followed Utah’s lead by allowing students to use mental health days as a valid excuse to miss a day of school. Dr. Healey was raised in Eastern Ontario, Canada, and offered another solution for time off, holiday weekends. “In my homeland, we’ve made sure that every single month has a long weekend. We’ve invented holidays to allow for three day weekends. That’s something that I advocate for.”

Written by Michael Arce, Marketing Coordinator, Capital Cardiology Associates © 2019.

Any medical information shared in this article is not intended as a substitute for informed medical advice and you should not take any medical action before consulting with a healthcare professional.