Probing Question: Do emotions influence heart health?

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Heart health is a complicated matter, involving many factors that thread between genetics, lifestyle choices and, yes, even your emotions, says Barb McDanel, R.N., director of the Penn State Beaver Health Center. Some emotions, such as anger, depression and anxiety, are just plain bad for your heart if they become chronic emotional states.

Most people are aware that anger is known to elevate blood pressure, which can worsen heart health, explains McDanel. But scientists now know that depression and anxiety are also found in strong association with patients who suffer heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In a recent study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, researchers found prevalence rates of depression in up to 60 percent of chronic heart failure cases studied. Anxiety prevalence rates were slightly lower, topping out at about 45 percent. And they found that suffering from both depression and anxiety increased the risk of death.

A second study published in December 2009 in Current Opinion in Cardiology describes the mechanism linking anger with ventricular arrhythmias, a condition of unusual rhythm in the heart's two lower chambers, the ventricles. The study reports that feeling angry can cause a change in the electrical properties of the cells that make up the thick, contractile tissue of the heart wall, the myocardium. This altered electrical pulse can trigger changes in what scientists call a T-wave alteran, or the beat-to-beat variation that shows up as waves and spikes on an electrocardiogram. Large spikes, or sudden changes in the T-wave, give doctors a visual graph of the ventricular arrythmia.

If sustained, these unusual rhythms can lead to a dangerous condition called ventricular tachycardia, in which the heart races at 100 or more beats per minute. If untreated, this can degenerate further into ventricular fibrillation, or completely disorganized electrical activity, resulting in the heart failing to pump blood.

So, is love the antidote? Can positive emotions like love, friendship and social connectedness improve health? It seems that way, suggests McDanel. Many studies have shown that patients who have caring support networks during health crises have better outcomes than those who do not, she notes. A decade-long study on elderly Australians found that those with larger networks of friends were found to be 22 percent less likely to expire during the study period than those with fewer friends.

Says McDanel, "Friendships and supportive social networks can definitely help people through times of sickness or emotional hardship. We have to treat people with a holistic approach, treating their physical maladies, improving their diet and exercise, but also working on their emotions and giving them the tools to manage them better."

Reducing stress, anger and loneliness, reminds McDanel, is a recipe for good health on Valentine's Day and every other day of the year.

Barbara McDanel, RNC, BSN, CSN, M.S., is director of health services at the Penn State Beaver campus, and can be reached at bqm5@psu.edu.

Last Updated February 09, 2010