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Mental health and your heart

Sept. 14, 2018—New research suggests that mental distress may increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. This is the result of a nearly five-year study by scientists in Australia, who found that mental health issues such as depression or anxiety were associated with higher rates of cardiovascular disease and cerebrovascular disease.

How the study worked

Researchers recruited more than 220,000 adults ages 45 and over. None had previously had a heart attack or stroke. Then, they ranked the participants' levels of mental distress as low, medium or high/very high, based on a 10-question survey known as the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale.

The highest levels of mental distress were found among women and younger participants.

What they discovered

Scientists monitored the participants' heart health for 4.7 years. During that time, there were 4,573 heart attacks and 2,421 strokes. Even when accounting for other risk factors, such as smoking, alcohol consumption and eating habits, researchers found that:

  • Women with high/very high levels of mental distress had a 44 percent greater risk of stroke while men in that category had a 24 percent higher risk.
  • Men between 45 and 79 with high/very high levels of mental distress had a 30 percent greater risk of heart attack (the link began weakening at age 80). Women with high/very high psychological distress had an 18 percent higher risk for heart attack.

In general, the research showed that risk of heart attack or stroke increased as psychological distress increased. The connection between mental health and heart health is not fully understood. While there have been previous studies on the subject, those studies have shown inconsistent results.

What we can do

So how can patients and health professionals help? The full study, published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, had several recommendations:

  • If you think you may have a mental health problem like depression, talk to your doctor.
  • Medical professionals should better screen for and treat mental health concerns.
  • There should be better screening for heart health risk factors among patients with mental disorders.

In short, better mental health may lead to better overall health. And as for heart health? Take this heart attack assessment to check your risk.

Sources: American Heart Association

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