Heart and mind are a two-way street

February means Groundhog Day, Valentine's Day, Presidents Day and, for the past 57 years, Heart Month. This year our annual observance of Heart Month is more important than ever.

While COVID-19 has taken about 850,000 American lives over the past two years, heart disease is still the leading cause of death in this country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 659,000 people die in the U.S. each year from some form of heart disease.

The pandemic has become a contributing factor to heart disease. Many of us delayed or avoided going to hospitals for heart attacks and strokes, and we engaged in some pretty heart-unhealthy behaviors, such as not exercising, overeating and drinking more alcohol.

And then there's the mental and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on us. What's going on in your mind can affect your heart, and vice versa, for better or for worse.

The American Heart Association published a statement not long ago titled "Psychological Health, Well-Being, and the Mind-Heart-Body Connection." It reported that negative mental health conditions - such as depression, chronic stress, anxiety, anger and pessimism - are associated with potentially harmful responses, such as increased blood pressure, inflammation and reduced blood flow to the heart.

In addition, depression and anxiety are associated with poorer outcomes in heart patients. And who hasn't been depressed or anxious over the last two years?

This works in the opposite direction, too. An unhealthy heart can lead to potentially serious conditions in the brain. Your heart pumps blood to every part of your body, including your brain. Damage to blood vessels from coronary artery disease can increase your risk of stroke and dementia.

So keeping your mind healthy helps your heart. And a healthy heart may keep you from losing your mind to stroke or dementia.

During this Heart Month, let's all see what we can do to keep the mind-heart-body connection operating as well as it can. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Cultivate better mental health

Whether this means talking through issues with a therapist, practicing mindfulness or just engaging in a satisfying hobby. (I spend time with plants to recharge my batteries.)

Studies have found that positive psychological attributes - optimism and satisfaction, for example - are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality, according to Dr. Glenn Levine, professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of the cardiac care unit at the Michael E. DeBakey Medical Center.

Also, people with positive mental health are more associated with healthy heart conditions, like lower blood pressure, better glucose control, less inflammation and lower cholesterol. Social relationships are also important. Many of us lost social connections during the various phases of the pandemic so we need to reestablish those relationships.

Mental health screening

If you or a loved one have already been diagnosed with heart disease, consider whether a mental health screening would be a good idea. Improving your mental outlook may aid treatment and recovery. Levine urges medical professionals to address a patient's mental as well as physical wellness. Programs like cognitive behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, collaborative care management, stress reduction therapy and meditation could all help reduce risk.

Maintain a healthy blood pressure

Normal blood pressure for most adults is defined as a systolic pressure of less than 120 and a diastolic pressure of less than 80. If you get "white coat syndrome," elevating your blood pressure in a doctor's office, I recommend getting a home blood pressure cuff. If you're on medication to lower blood pressure, take it faithfully. An oximeter, which measures the oxygen content of your blood, is also good to have handy.

Limit alcohol consumption

Because alcohol raises blood pressure, limit your intake by whatever strategy works for you. Confine wine and beer to the weekends. Measure out that five-ounce serving of wine or 1½ ounce serving of spirits. The National Institutes of Health recommends two drinks a day or less for men and one drink or less for women.

And finally …

These may go without saying: don't smoke; eat more fruits, veggies and seafood; and get your heart pumping for at least 150 minutes a week. Easier said than done, so baby steps are OK.

Someone dies every 36 seconds from cardiovascular disease. Every year, 795,000 people have a stroke. You have the power to lessen your risks not only by taking care of your heart, but also by promoting an overall positive state of mind.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( She is offering a free phone consultation to Daily Herald readers; call her at (847) 612-6684.

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