February is Heart Health Month

This morning I opened the monthly newsletter from our long-time customers at Behavioral Health Institute in Coral Springs, FL. I was very impressed with Dr. Ellie Nelson-Wernick’s take on the importance of psychological factors in heart health. I asked if I could re-post her article so you too could benefit from her insights. She graciously acquiesced. Her article is below. I hope you will be motivated to assess your own efforts to care for your heart.

Why a Psychologist is Writing about 
Heart Health
By Ellie Nelson-Wernick, Ph. D.

Heart disease can cause serious illness and disability — And it is the No. 1 cause of death in the US for both men and women.

Psychology is the study of human behavior, and psychologists are trained to help individuals identify when change in behavior could be beneficial, and how to go about making changes for a healthier life.

Health Behavior matters. Most of us are aware that healthy lifestyle choices reduce the risk of developing illness, and that practicing positive health behaviors  such as these are vital to those with a diagnosis of heart disease:

  • Exercise for 30 minutes most days of the week.
  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco products and avoid second hand smoke.
  • Eat a diet low in fat, cholesterol and salt.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Get regular health screenings to detect early signs of hypertension, high cholesterol or diabetes, which are all risk factors for heart disease.
If you are not making conscious efforts to achieve these goals, I challenge you to ask yourself WHY NOT? And more importantly, if you want to have good health, what behaviors are you willing to start changing?

Here’s something you may not know — A growing body of research demonstrates that our THOUGHTS and EMOTIONS have as great an impact on our heart health as smoking, obesity and hypertension.

  • While some stress in our lives is inevitable, and can even serve as a motivator, chronic stress produces hormone levels that disrupt the body’s healthy functioning.
  • Prolonged pressure from work, financial problems, marital conflict, caretaking of a family member as well as other sources of stress have been correlated with the development of heart disease. 
  • Particularly at risk are those of us who respond to stress with anger and hostility. 
  • Depression, anxiety and lack of social support are additional factors contributing toward heart disease.

And are you aware — there is also strong evidence of a link between heart disease, open heart surgery and depression?

Over half of patients with a history of heart attack experience depression, and only 10% of these patients are identified.  Not only do these individuals suffer the effects of depression, but if it is left untreated there is increased risk for subsequent heart attack or stroke.

Estimates of patients who develop depression following coronary bypass surgery range from 30 – 50%. That’s a lot of people — and again, the diagnosis is often missed, along with the opportunity for treatment.

Here’s something else we need to change —
Cardiac rehabilitation programs are known to help patients live longer and have a better overall quality of life — physically, psychologically, and socially — and yet they are grossly underutilized. Only about half of patients who leave the hospital after heart attack or surgery are referred, and fewer than 20% of patients who are referred participate.

Health professionals need to educate themselves and their patients about the importance of Physical AND Behavioral health.

  • Simple screening measures can be used to identify individuals at risk.
  • Patients and their families need to be informed of the potential for depression following cardiac events and how to address it.
  • Referral to cardiac rehabilitation programs is the standard of care and patients should be strongly encouraged to participate. 
It can be difficult making healthy behavior changes and managing our emotions adaptively. Meeting with a psychologist, who can work in collaboration with you and your physician, will help you learn ways to live a healthier life.

Depression After A Cardiac Event or Diagnosis

Depression, anxiety, and cardiac morbidity outcomes after coronary artery bypass surgery: a contemporary and practical review

Cardiac rehabilitation past, present and future: an overview

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