Mental Health and Cardiovascular Disease

In our modern global life, we are interconnected in ways that we rarely fully appreciate. For example, recent history has shown that a crisis halfway around the world can drastically affect the price we pay for gasoline. Our personal economy and financial well-being is linked to the actions of other countries and actors who may be on the other side of the globe. Similarly, all aspects of our physiology are interconnected. The notion of treating the entire patient, not simply their ailment, is the primary tenant of holistic medicine. Much as the world has become more interconnected, so too has modern medicine come to appreciate the interconnected nature of the human organism.

It is not surprising then, that we would talk about the connection between our mental and physical state. In fact, we can probably all easily think of examples as to how our physical well-being affects our mental state. A heavy night of drinking often can lead to feelings of lethargy and sadness the next day. In contrast, a vigorous workout can relieve stress and bring clarity to our thoughts. Considering all this, it is probably of no surprise that our mental health can impact our physical health. Again, there are some obvious examples. Anxiety can increase heart rate and blood pressure while symptoms of depression can include a loss of energy and appetite. Even with this understanding, research continues to reveal other connections between our mind and our body.

A recent study revealed that individuals diagnosed with severe mental health challenges also suffer from an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The study was a large meta-analysis covering more than 3.2 million individuals with a mental health challenge as well as 113 million typical adults. Sever mental health issues such as schizophrenia, bipolar and major depression are known to reduce life expectancy anywhere from 10-15 years. Traditionally, it was thought that this was primarily due to death by suicide. However, the new study suggests that cardiovascular diseases such as stroke and heart attacks may also be a significant factor.

We recently wrote a blog post discussing how hospitalized patients are prone to experience depression. The authors of that study suggested that all hospitalized patients undergo a mental health screening to identify those most at risk. Parallel to that, the new study suggests that anyone suffering from a severe mental health challenge should also undergo screening for cardiovascular disease. In fact, it may then be possible to simultaneously treat both the mental health challenge and any possible cardiovascular issues linked to it. Again, as our understanding of the mind-body connection grows, it may be that physical changes, such as increasing exercise and improving diet, may also help to treat the mental health challenge itself along with medication and counseling.

Mental health issues were once viewed as somewhat nonmedical or lesser medical conditions. Supernatural or character defects were often proposed as causes for emotional and mental concerns. Fortunately, we now understand that these conditions are rooted in our biology just like any other disease. Therefore, it is not surprising that a mental health challenge is also associated with other physical health challenges. We suspect that further research will continue to reveal more and more such links which will only strengthen the need to integrate our understanding of both our physical and mental health. Although specialists such as psychiatrists, dieticians, and oncologist will always be the best sources of treatment, general health screenings increasingly include both a complete physical and mental components.