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Mental Health

Mental Health Can Affect Physical Well-being, Lead to Heart Disease

— June 7, 2022

Depression and anxiety can impact blood pressure and lead to cardiovascular issues.

A new study published in the journal BioMedical Engineering shows mental health ailments can negatively impact automimic functions which can, in turn, lead to poor blood pressure management and heart disease.  More specifically, the study builds on prior research which has found that individuals suffering from depression and anxiety may have reduced heart rate variation (HRV), which can be a sign of a poor response to stress.  This leads to significant physiological disorders.

“We know that people with mental health problems have [an] increased risk of cardiovascular events and organ damage,” explained Dr. Renly Lim, one of the researchers involved with the study. “We also know that people with higher blood pressure variation (BPV) have higher cardiovascular risk.  Our study now makes the connection between mental health problems and blood pressure and heart disease.”

Mental Health Can Affect Physical Well-being, Lead to Heart Disease
Photo by Louis Bauer from Pexels

“The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a complex network of cells that regulate involuntary physiologic processes like maintaining a constant internal temperature, regulating breathing patterns, keeping blood pressure steady, and moderating the heart rate,” the authors wrote, adding that “autonomic dysfunction is associated with an increased risk of heart disease.”

Many studies have demonstrated there is a link between reduced heart rate variation (HRV), depression and common anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  For the current research, the authors scoured four electronic databases for data on blood pressure variation (BPV) in individuals with mental illness who did not have hypertension (high blood pressure).  They found a dozen that met their criteria.

Of those, “seven measured ultrashort term BPV (beat-to-beat blood pressure measurement over seconds to minutes), three measured short-term BPV (blood pressure fluctuations that occur over a 24-hour time period), and two measured long-term BPV (fluctuations that occur over days, weeks, or even years),” they found. “Five of the studies assessed BPV in adults aged 55 and older while the remaining studies assessed BPV in adults between the ages of 18 and 46.  People with depression or anxiety had high BPV in the studies that measured short-term BPV.”  And they found “a significant association between BPV and mental illness.”

Dr. Cristen Wathen, an assistant professor in the counseling department at Palo Alto University, wasn’t surprised by these findings.  She said, “When we are consistently in chronic stress, which is typical of people who have been diagnosed with [anxiety and depression], then our bodies are releasing stress hormones, cortisol, epinephrine.  If we’re in that constant state of chronic stress [due to anxiety and depression], then that’s going to relate to our physical health.’

One’s socio-economic situation can also lead to chronic stress, Wathen said, adding, “There’s so much that’s related to poverty, oppression, trauma, like generational trauma, and access to healthcare, that also can lead to more experiences of chronic stress.”

Dr. Richard Wright, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, would like to use this data to determine whether physiological health might improve with mental health treatment.

“I think…the main importance of this kind of an analysis [is] to point out that there are physical ramifications of these emotional issues,” he explained. “If you’re chronically depressed and you have these issues where the autonomic nervous system is messed up, do you get better if your depression goes away?”  More research is needed to determine the impact of treatment options on one’s overall health and well-being.


Blood pressure and mental health: Study finds cardiovascular link

Association between mental illness and blood pressure variability: a systematic review

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