Improving your mind’s outlook on the world can both improve your mood and make you physically healthier. A clear example of the mind-body connection has been discovered in the relationship between heart disease and depression. Recent research has found that treating depression can actually improve a patient’s heart condition in addition to helping them live a much happier life.
According to the Harvard Heart Letter, people who are depressed but haven’t been diagnosed with heart disease have a 60 percent greater chance of having a heart attack or stroke than people who are happy. And the risk is even higher for those who have been diagnosed with a cardiovascular condition.
But it can be difficult — even for physicians — to detect depression in patients with heart disease. Many people think that sadness or irritability should be expected in someone who’s been told they have an illness that may compromise the quality or duration of their life. However, if those feelings last longer than two weeks, then depression is likely complicating the patient’s condition.
Other symptoms are sometimes attributed to heart disease when in fact they’re indicators of depression, including lower activity and energy levels, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, and a diminished zest for life. The researchers from the Heart and Soul Study at the University of California — San Francisco report that depression can best be identified by asking 2 simple questions:
“During the past month, have you often been bothered by feeling down, depressed or hopeless?”
“During the past month, have you often been bothered by having little interest or pleasure in doing things?”
If either one of these questions is answered affirmatively, it’s strongly recommended that the person consult with a mental health professional. There are several standard treatments for depression that have been shown to be effective for people who have cardiovascular conditions.
A Harvard review of the research revealed that people who learn how to have a happier life have fewer “sticky” platelets, making it less likely that the blood cells will form fatal clots in the bloodstream. Treatment for depression was also found to help regulate the autonomic nervous system, resulting in improvements in patients’ heart rate and rhythm.
Patients who receive psychological counseling have a much better chance of making and sustaining the behavioral changes that support heart health. Psychologists offer treatments that enable people to start exercising, eating well, taking their medications, and maintaining positive relationships with their family and friends.
For deeply depressed patients, medications may also be indicated. Heart patients who become depressed typically dwell on how their condition could adversely affect their life. Therapy based on positive psychology research helps people to envision their life filled with loving relationships and fun physical activities — and fuels motivation to create that lifestyle.
Exercise is an essential element in treating depression as well as heart disease. Numerous studies have shown that engaging in regular exercise improves people’s mood while helping the heart and blood vessels. Even modest improvements in overall fitness levels have been found to significantly improve physical as well as psychological symptoms.
To reap the benefits that exercise provides, people need to engage in regular, moderately intense activities such as walking a mile in under 15 or 20 minutes. Moreover, research has found that people must exercise a minimum of 35 minutes a day, five days a week, or 60 minutes a day for three days during the week.
When you start an exercise program, consult with your physician and consider working with a personal trainer who specializes in dealing with people who have medical issues. Some trainers also have degrees in nursing or physical therapy and are great at getting people into an exercise routine that they find enjoyable.
One of the most important ingredients involved in making a change is to make a plan. Schedule exercise on your calendar with fixed dates and durations noted. Treat your health as a priority as important as a times you set up to take your spouse to a doctor’s appointment or meet with your boss. Try to exercise at a time during the day when you typically have the most energy.
If you haven’t been exercising, start slow — in the 60 percent to 65 percent range of your maximum heart rate (typically 220 minus your age). Better to get in 10 minutes of exercise than none at all. Establishing a routine takes weeks or months, so expect that you’ll have setbacks. Working with a psychologist to maintain your motivation is a big help.