Heart Disease Articles & Resources

Imogen Sharma
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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What Is Heart Disease?

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), heart disease is a type of cardiovascular disorder that impacts the heart and how it functions. (1) Around 12% of U.S. adults have a heart disease diagnosis, and 630,000 Americans die from the condition every year. The most common type in the U.S. is coronary or ischemic heart disease. Individuals with this diagnosis have blocked arteries that reduce the amount of blood flow to the heart.

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Heart Disease and Mental Health

There's a complicated relationship between heart disease and mental health. People with a serious mental illness, such as major depression disorder (MDD) and schizophrenia, are around 50% more likely to develop heart problems. (2) Likewise, while around 20% of the general population experiences depression at some point, 50% of people with heart disease experience the disorder. (3)
A number of factors contribute to the development of mental illness and heart disease, including high cortisol (a stress hormone), chronic inflammation, lack of exercise, and obesity. Having a mental health disorder increases someone's likelihood of leading an inactive lifestyle, smoking, eating a diet high in processed foods, and forgetting to take medication. This is typically because they haven't learned how to use healthy coping mechanisms to manage stress. (4)

Experiencing a serious health condition can have a devastating psychological impact. Per the British Heart Foundation, fear of another cardiac event or death means 77% of individuals with heart disease experience anxiety, while 51% feel depressed. (5) Only 60% of those surveyed sought professional treatment for their symptoms, which means 40% didn't speak to any professional mental health provider. Highly effective treatment is available to individuals with heart disease and mental illness, and getting professional help could drastically improve overall health outcomes.

What Causes Heart Disease?

The primary risk factors for heart disease are smoking, high blood pressure, and high blood cholesterol, and around 50% of Americans have at least one risk factor. (6) Other circumstances, lifestyle factors and medical conditions that place people at an increased risk include: (7)

  • Age—older people have a higher rate of diagnosis
  • Family history
  • Diabetes
  • Excess body fat
  • Diet high in highly processed food, trans fats, sodium, and sugar
  • Lack of physical exercise
  • Drinking too much alcohol

What Are the Symptoms of Heart Disease?

Heart disease symptoms vary, depending on the specific illness and the individual's medical history. Examples of cardiovascular diseases include:

  • Coronary artery disease (8)
  • Congenital heart defects (9)
  • Arrhythmia
  • Dilated cardiomyopathy
  • Myocardial infarction
  • Heart failure
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
  • Mitral valve regurgitation
  • Mitral valve prolapse
  • Aortic stenosis

Individuals with heart disease might not experience any symptoms until the condition becomes serious. High blood pressure and high cholesterol should be managed with the help of a medical professional as a preventative measure against life-threatening conditions such as heart attack, arrhythmia, and heart failure. Symptoms are listed below:

  • Heart attack: Heartburn, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, neck pain, extreme fatigue, dizziness, difficulty breathing, and dizziness
  • Heart failure: Trouble breathing, swelling due to water retention (edema), and fatigue
  • Arrhythmia: Fluttering sensations in the chest

How Is Heart Disease Diagnosed?

The definitive method of diagnosing coronary heart disease is a coronary angiography. (10) However, this is usually a final measure, as it's an expensive and invasive procedure. An abnormal result from one of the following tests would likely be required first:

  • Exercise stress tests: This type of test typically takes place on a treadmill and uses an electrocardiogram (ECG) to measure electrical signals from the heart. An abnormal result at a low workload is a reliable indication of coronary heart disease, while abnormalities that are consistent at rest and during exercise suggest blood vessel damage.
  • Pharmacologic stress tests: Individuals who can't do the exercise test are likely to be given medication that increases heart rate, and their responses are measured and compared to the results expected from healthy subjects.
  • Coronary computed tomography (CT) angiography: With this imaging technique, health professionals use injectable dye and take CT images to see how quickly blood is able to pass through the coronary artery.

How Is Heart Disease Treated?

Treatment varies depending on which heart condition an individual has. However, a combination of surgery, medication, and lifestyle changes are usually recommended.
Medications for the treatment of heart disease include:

  • Anticoagulants that thin the blood
  • Antiplatelet therapies can prevent clotting
  • Beta-blockers lower blood pressure and reduce heart rate
  • Calcium channel blockers prevent arrhythmia and lower blood pressure
  • Cholesterol-lowering medications reduce low-density lipoprotein cholesterol
  • Diuretics remove excess water from the body and reduce the heart's workload
  • Vasodilators relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure

Here are some crucial lifestyle factors to implement during heart disease rehabilitation: (11)

  • Regular physical activity
  • Education and support regarding a heart health-promoting diet, taking medication on time, and quitting smoking
  • Stress reduction
  • Counseling to stay mentally healthy and manage symptoms of depression and/or anxiety

How to Cope with a Heart Disease Diagnosis

The most important things for people with a heart disease diagnosis to do are to manage stress and know that there's no shame in asking for help. While many heart conditions aren't curable, practically all of them can be brought into remission to reduce the risk of future complications. There are often significant lifestyle changes that need to be made—and trying to make them alone isn't necessary.
Managing stress means treating the body like a temple and honoring it with healthy food, joyful movement, and strong, positive bonds with loved ones.

How to Help Someone with Heart Disease

When someone receives a diagnosis of heart disease, it can be highly distressing and disorienting for them and their loved ones—and there's no invalid reaction. To help them, maintain positive communication, support them as they work toward a healthier lifestyle, encourage them to attend treatment, and work together to reduce stress at home.
If a family member experiences anxiety, depression, or distress and feels unable to cope, they should consider seeking counseling for themselves. Family therapy can also be helpful. When everyone actively manages their emotional state and tries to be mentally and physically healthy, it can have a deeply positive impact on the individual with the diagnosis.