For heart attack survivors, keeping a good head helps prevent future attacks

WASHINGTON — Good mental health can prevent heart attacks and stroke in people who have already suffered the potentially fatal heart conditions, according to a new study.

Researchers say that heart attack survivors a much higher chance of having a second if they were suffering psychological distress. Among the conditions and emotions linked to the increased risk were depression, anxiety, anger, and PTSD.

The study chimes with previous research, but is the first to focus on middle-aged patients. Participants had an average age of 51.

The team behind the findings believes stress may increase inflammation, leading to plaque buildup in arteries and, eventually, heart attack or stroke.

“Our findings suggest that cardiologists should consider the value of regular psychological assessments, especially among younger patients,” says lead author Dr Mariana Garcia, a cardiology fellow at Emory University, in a statement. “Equally importantly, they should explore treatment modalities for ameliorating psychological distress in young patients after a heart attack, such as meditation, relaxation techniques and holistic approaches, in addition to traditional medical therapy and cardiac rehabilitation.”

The researchers analyzed health data on 283 heart attack survivors between the ages of 18 and 61. Participants completed a series of questionnaires measuring depression, anxiety, anger, perceived stress and post-traumatic stress disorder within six months of their heart attack. Based on this survey, the researchers created score of psychological distress for each patient and grouped them based on experiences of mild, moderate and high distress.

Within five years after their heart attack, 80 of the 283 patients suffered another heart attack or stroke, were hospitalised for heart failure, or died from cardiovascular causes. These outcomes occurred in nearly half (47 percent) of patients experiencing high distress compared to just over a fifth (22 percent) of those experiencing mild distress.

“It is thought that those who have had a heart attack may be particularly vulnerable to plaque rupture as a result of these inflammatory mechanisms at play,” says Garcia. “The association we found was independent of known cardiovascular risk factors and suggests mechanisms involving systemic inflammation in response to stress may be implicated in the likelihood of a subsequent cardiac event.”

The researchers now plan to investigate how socioeconomic and demographic factors could influence mental health among people who suffer a heart attack at a young age. This, they said, is particularly relevant after a rise in the number of heart attacks among young women over recent years.

“Outreach to the community has led to increased awareness of traditional heart disease risk factors and focus on things like diet and exercise, but many people, particularly younger people, may not be aware of the importance of mental health,” adds Garcia. “Our study offers a strong message to people recovering from a heart attack that ameliorating psychological distress is equally important.”

SWNS writer William Janes contributed to this report.