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The Link Between Mental Health and Cardiovascular Diseases

Both mental health disorders and cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are global challenges affecting millions of people worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 8 people has a mental disorder. The WHO also states that the leading cause of death worldwide is CVDs. 

There is a range of mental disorders, but they’re all characterised by disturbances in emotional regulation, behaviour and cognition. They’re usually associated with distress or impairment in functioning. Here are some of the most common mental disorders and their prevalence according to the WHO:

  • Anxiety disorders: 301 million people (of which 58 million are children or adolescents)
  • Depression: 280 million people (of which 23 million are children or adolescents)
  • Bipolar disorder: 40 million people
  • Schizophrenia: 24 million people (1 in 300)
  • Eating disorders: 14 million people (of which 3 million are children or adolescents)

Cardiovascular diseases represent 32% of all global deaths and so their impact is signification. 85% of these were due to stroke or heart attack. 

There is an intersection between mental health disorders and CVDs—and the relationship is bidirectional. From the physiological manifestations of stress on cardiovascular function to the psychological impact of coping with a chronic illness, it’s important to understand how these conditions interconnect. Only then can we devise comprehensive strategies for preventing and treating them.

Understanding the Connection

Understanding the Connection

The relationship between mental health and CVD is due to a complicated interplay of psychological and biological mechanisms. 

At a biological level, mental health problems like anxiety, stress and depression can trigger a physiological response that directly affects cardiovascular health. Chronic stress, for example, activates the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This leads to an increase in heart rate, higher blood pressure and inflammation. All of these are risk factors for CVDs.

Psychological factors like depression and anxiety also lead to unhealthy behaviours, which in turn elevate the risk of developing CVD. People with anxiety and depression, for instance, may engage in poor dietary habits or substance abuse. They may also lead a more sedentary lifestyle. All of these factors are associated with an increase in cardiovascular events. What’s more, having a mental health disorder can impair the body’s ability to regulate stress hormones and inflammatory responses. This exacerbates cardiovascular risk further.

Psychological factors also include a range of social and environmental elements. A person’s socio-economic status and the presence of work stress or social support also link to cardiovascular health. 

Those who experience chronic job strain or social isolation, for example, could be more at risk of hypertension, coronary artery disease and other CVDs due to prolonged exposure to stressors.

Psychological factors like these can also influence traditional risk factors like obesity and smoking. Stressful life events (bereavement, financial difficulties, etc.) can precipitate unhealthy behaviours too. 

Finally, psychological stressors can directly impact the physiological processes involved in cardiovascular function. This includes endothelial dysfunction, arterial stiffness and dysregulated autonomic nervous system activity.

In the other direction, mental health disorders are also known to develop after cardiac events. This includes depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These problems can be brought on by fear, pain, disability or financial problems arising from the event.

Impact of Mental Health Disorders on Cardiovascular Health

Research studies have demonstrated a significant association between mental health disorders and an elevated risk of CVDs. According to the American College of Cardiology, people with depression face an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. However, the effects are exacerbated in women. 

Depression and anxiety exert effects on cardiovascular health in a myriad of physiological pathways. Depression is associated with dysregulated autonomic nervous system activity. This leads to disturbances in heart rate variability and blood pressure regulation. Individuals with depression also often have alterations in their platelet function and coagulation factors. This predisposes them to a prothrombotic state, which means the body has an increased tendency to form blood clots. This enhances the risk of cardiovascular events. 

These mental health disorders have also been linked to increased inflammation. This is a key pathological process that is implicated in the development of CVDs and their progression. Chronic stress stimulates the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are small proteins that play an important role in cell signalling. They’re essentially messengers that coordinate our immune response and regulate inflammation. 

This activates our innate immune system, thus contributing to problems with blood circulation and the build-up of plaque and thrombosis. 

It is, therefore, crucial to address mental health issues in cardiovascular risk assessments and to treat them appropriately to reduce risk.

Specific populations and mental health on CVDs

Certain populations are more likely to have higher rates of heart disease due to pre-existing mental health disorders. This includes:

  • Veterans: Veterans are at a higher risk for heart disease due to PTSD following combat.
  • Women: Females with mental health disorders are at an increased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) and its related mortality.
  • Couples where one partner has PTSD: Where PTSD is in the home, the partner also has an increased risk.
  • Racial and ethnic minorities: Certain subpopulations are at an increased risk for CVDs due to mental health conditions related to disparities in the social determinants of health, racism, discrimination and potential adverse childhood experiences.
Cardiovascular Health and Mental Wellbeing

Cardiovascular Health and Mental Wellbeing

Though a lot of attention focuses on the impact of mental health on cardiovascular health, the converse relationship is equally significant. There can be profound effects on mental health for those suffering from cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and strokes. 

There are various ways in which CVDs impact mental wellbeing:

  • Psychological trauma: Surviving a heart attack or stroke can be a traumatic experience. The aftermath is often accompanied by feelings of fear, helplessness and uncertainty about the future. The sudden onset of life-threatening symptoms (and the need for medical interventions) can lead to acute stress reactions and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in some people.
  • Physical limitations: CVDs can result in physical impairments and functional limitations. This can disrupt daily activities, hobbies and social interactions. Loss of independence and mobility can lead to feelings of frustration, isolation and diminished self-esteem. All of these factors contribute to depressive symptoms and anxiety.
  • Lifestyle changes: Following a diagnosis of CVD, individuals often need to make significant lifestyle modifications. This includes changes to diet, stopping smoking and increasing exercise. Adapting to these changes can be challenging. Individuals may experience feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, particularly if they perceive these modifications as restrictive or burdensome.
  • Social and interpersonal factors: CVDs can impact social relationships and support networks. Some individuals face difficulties in communication, intimacy and social participation due to their acquired health condition. Social isolation, loneliness and perceived stigma related to CVDs can further exacerbate psychological distress, which contributes to poor mental health outcomes.

Recognising the bidirectional relationship between cardiovascular health and mental wellbeing is important. This shows how important it is to integrate mental health screening and support into cardiac rehabilitation programmes. These programmes traditionally focus on physical rehabilitation and secondary prevention strategies. However, addressing the psychological and emotional needs of individuals is crucial for optimising overall health outcomes and quality of life.

Mental health screening can help identify individuals at risk of depression, anxiety or PTSD early in their recovery process. This means they can access evidence-based interventions like cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), stress management techniques and peer support groups, which can help them cope following a cardiac event or diagnosis.

Collaboration between teams is also important. When cardiologists, psychologists and other health professionals work together, they can better address the interplay between cardiovascular health and mental wellbeing.

Shared Risk Factors and Lifestyle Factors

There are several shared risk factors between mental health disorders and cardiovascular diseases, which shows their interconnectedness:

  • Sedentary lifestyle: A lack of physical activity is associated with an increased risk of both mental health disorders and cardiovascular diseases. This includes anxiety, depression, obesity, hypertension and diabetes.
  • Poor diet: A diet high in processed foods, saturated fats, sugar and salt and low in fruits, vegetables and whole grains is linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety and CVDs.
  • Substance abuse: Alcohol and drug abuse are associated with adverse mental health outcomes. This includes substance use disorders, depression and anxiety. This is also associated with increased cardiovascular risk, including cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias and hypertension.

The role of lifestyle modifications

Lifestyle interventions are important in improving both conditions. They address these shared risk factors and promote overall wellbeing. Modifications include:

  • Exercise: Regular physical activity is beneficial for mental health. It reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety and improves mood and cognitive function. Equally, exercise is excellent for cardiovascular health because it helps to maintain a healthy weight, lowers blood pressure and improves lipid profiles.
  • Healthy eating: A balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats supports mental wellbeing. This is because it provides essential nutrients and antioxidants and reduces inflammation. Similarly, a healthy diet prevents and helps to manage risk factors associated with CVDs. This includes high cholesterol, hypertension and obesity.
  • Stress management: Chronic stress contributes to both CVDs and mental health disorders. Stress triggers physiological responses that increase heart rate, blood pressure and inflammation. Stress management techniques like yoga, deep breathing exercises and mindfulness meditation are useful in that they help individuals cope with stress. They also promote emotional resilience and relaxation.
Practical tips for holistic health and wellbeing

Practical tips for holistic health and wellbeing

  • Make physical activity a part of your daily routine. Take part in activities you enjoy like walking, swimming or cycling.
  • Eat a balanced diet that contains plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. Limit your processed food intake, including sugary snacks and drinks. Watch your sodium consumption.
  • Practise mindfulness and other relaxation techniques like meditation or progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Limit alcohol consumption and avoid cigarettes and recreational drugs. This helps reduce the risk of substance abuse-related mental health disorders and cardiovascular complications.
  • Prioritise sleep by maintaining a regular sleep schedule. Create a relaxing bedtime routine and avoid stimulants like caffeine and screens before bed.

Addressing the Intersection

There are complex challenges and profound implications of the intersection between the two conditions. This requires an integrated approach that addresses the physical and psychological impacts of both conditions. 

Healthcare professionals must be trained to recognise the bidirectional relationship between mental health and CVDs. Understanding this interplay means better risk assessment, diagnosis and treatment planning.

Healthcare professionals need to adopt a holistic view of patient care. They should acknowledge that mental health issues can significantly impact cardiovascular outcomes and vice versa.

The importance of integrated care models

Integrated care models address both physical and mental health needs. This is critical for optimising patient outcomes and reducing healthcare disparities. Collaborative care models involve multidisciplinary teams working together to deliver comprehensive care that addresses both mental health and cardiovascular concerns.

By integrating mental health screening, assessment and treatment into routine cardiovascular care, healthcare professionals can identify and address mental health issues early. This improves overall patient outcomes and quality of life.

By working together, mental health specialists and cardiologists can develop tailored interventions that address both cardiovascular risk factors and mental health symptoms. Ultimately this improves patient outcomes and reduces the burden of disease. However, this all requires a concerted effort from healthcare professionals across disciplines.


The intricate relationship between mental health and cardiovascular diseases is evidenced by extensive research. Mental health disorders significantly impact the risk of CVDs and adverse outcomes following cardiovascular events. Conversely, those with diagnosed CVDs are at heightened risk of experiencing mental health challenges.

Addressing the intersection of mental health and CVD calls for a holistic approach. This needs to consider both the physical and psychological factors. Healthcare professionals must recognise this bidirectional relationship so they can integrate appropriate mental health screening, assessment and treatment into routine cardiovascular care. Integrated care models allow collaboration between all specialists to provide comprehensive care to those with comorbid mental health and CVDs.

Continued research and advocacy efforts are, of course, paramount. Further study is needed to better understand the complex mechanisms involved to help develop more effective prevention and treatment strategies. Additionally, advocacy is needed to raise awareness, reduce stigma and promote policies that support integrated healthcare approaches.

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About the author

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Louise Woffindin

Louise is a writer and translator from Sheffield. Before turning to writing, she worked as a secondary school language teacher. Outside of work, she is a keen runner and also enjoys reading and walking her dog Chaos.

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