By: Armaan Singh
It is the number one killer in the United States: heart disease. The root cause of heart disease has typically been linked to an unhealthy lifestyle of little to no exercise, obesity, and smoking. However, new research has surfaced pointing to another cause: mental illness.
That begs the question- does mental health have a link to heart disease and vice versa- or is it a coincidental finding that yields little to no scientific weight?
First, let's clarify what heart disease and mental illness are. The broad description of heart disease is that it is a range of conditions that include diseased vessels, structural problems, and blood clots. Notable heart diseases include Coronary Artery Disease, Arrhythmia, Cardiac Arrest, and Congestive Heart Failure. The causes for these are usually the buildup of plaque in one’s arteries, which inhibits blood flow, a result of preventable lifestyle decisions. On the other hand, mental illness is a term that encompasses a wide range of conditions that affect mood, thinking, and behavior such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. These conditions are usually the results of chemical imbalances and prior experience.
Now you may be wondering how are heart disease and mental health connected? Through many studies, it has been shown that mental illness has proven to not only be the cause of heart diseases but also a symptom of it. Up to 40% of heart disease patients meet the criteria for major depressive disorders.
People with depressive disorders have been found to have uncommonly sticky platelets. Platelets are the tiny cells that cause blood to clot, while sticky platelets are characterized by platelet hyperaggregability. With patients who have contracted heart disease, sticky platelet syndrome leads to the process of atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries, which increases the likelihood of a heart attack. Sticky platelet syndrome is a disorder of platelet function and has been described as a coagulation disorder.
As heart disease can be a result of mental illness, mental illness can result from heart disease—hence furthering the cycle. Many forms of mental health issues increase hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, further impacting your blood pressure and heart rate in an irregular fashion. Adrenaline is a hormone secreted by the adrenal gland and increases blood circulation in times of stress. Cortisol is a hormone that regulates a wide range of processes in the body such as metabolism and immune response.
Similar to adrenaline it plays a large role in the body’s response to stress. However, if too much cortisol is released, an increase in blood cholesterol occurs, along with a glut of triglycerides, and blood sugars surface which are leading contributors to heart disease. On a similar note, while adrenaline is beneficial in ‘flight or fight’ response scenarios, too much adrenal release can lead to damaged blood vessels and high blood pressure. When the body’s stress response system is activated long term and stays on, a disruption of body processes occurs. Adrenaline damages the blood vessels by constricting and dilating them along with increasing the rate and force of contraction, leading to permanent damage. Finally, individuals with depression experience changes in hormonal balance and the nervous system—which can trigger abnormal heart rhythm disturbance called arrhythmia. Tachycardia (rapid heart rate caused by anxiety) can also interfere with normal heart function. The combination of a damaged heart and depression can lead to potentially fatal heart rhythm abnormalities.
Now you may ask, why is this significant? The more we learn about heart disease, the more we can prevent it, and discovering this variable can better help with stopping high heart disease cases worldwide. So whenever you feel anxious or depressed in the back of your head—remember that your heart and mind are more closely connected than they appear.
What did you learn?
1. What is sticky platelet syndrome?
Answer: With patients who have contracted heart disease, sticky platelet syndrome leads to the process of atherosclerosis which is the hardening of the arteries and consequently increases the likelihood of a heart attack. Sticky platelet syndrome is a disorder of platelet function and has been described as a coagulation disorder. Individuals who have depressive disorders have been noted to have sticky platelet syndrome.
2. What is the role of adrenaline and cortisol in heart disease?
Answer: Adrenaline is a hormone secreted by the adrenal gland, increasing blood circulation in times of stress. Cortisol is a hormone that regulates a wide range of processes in the body such as metabolism and immune response. Similar to adrenaline it plays a large role in the body’s response to stress. However if too much cortisol is released an increase in blood cholesterol occurs, along with a glut of triglycerides, and blood sugars surface which are leading factors in heart disease.