Two new studies, to be presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2023, highlight the connection between mental well-being and heart and brain health. The studies show how conditions like depression, anxiety, and chronic stress can increase the risk of heart and brain health complications, such as atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, and stroke.
The impact of depression and anxiety on cardiovascular risk factors
The first study, titled “Depression and anxiety accelerate the rate of gain of cardiovascular risk factors: mechanism leading to increased risk of cardiac events,” examines how anxiety and depression can speed up the development of new cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. The study reveals that people previously diagnosed with anxiety or depression developed these risk factors approximately six months earlier than those without such diagnoses, ultimately increasing their risk of heart attacks or strokes by around 35 per cent.
The study also suggests that depression and anxiety may induce brain changes that trigger downstream effects in the body, such as increased inflammation and fat deposition. These findings underscore the importance of screening individuals with depression and anxiety for cardiovascular risk factors and providing them with appropriate treatment and support.
The impact of cumulative stress on heart and brain health
The second study, titled “Associations of cumulative perceived stress with cardiovascular risk factors and outcomes: findings from the Dallas Heart Study,” takes a multidimensional approach to understanding the impact of cumulative stress on heart and brain health. It introduces a “cumulative stress score” that considers various aspects of stress, such as everyday stress, psychosocial stress, financial stress, and neighborhood-perceived stress.
This cumulative stress score was found to be strongly associated with a 22% increased risk of atherosclerosis (the buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances called plaque in and on the artery walls), a 20% increased risk of overall cardiovascular disease, and a 17% increased risk of stroke. This study emphasises the need to address cumulative stress as a multifaceted issue affecting heart and brain health and to provide interventions that target different sources of stress.
The importance of the mind-heart connection
Both studies bring attention to the mind-heart connection and the importance of considering cumulative stress levels when evaluating an individual’s health. The American Heart Association has long recognised the link between mental well-being and heart health, and these new studies delve deeper into understanding the extent to which one’s mental state can affect their heart health.
The studies also highlight the need for more research on the mechanisms and pathways that link mental and physical health, as well as the development of effective prevention and treatment strategies that can improve both aspects of health.