Heart disease: Poor mental health shown to increase risk of high blood pressure

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Heart disease risk factors can have far more to do with simply just eating a poor diet and not exercising regularly. Poor mental health has been shown to affect both blood pressure reading and a person’s heart health, warns a new study.

With poor mental health at an all time high, now is the time for careful vigilance rather than complacency as a new study finds the damaging effects could increase heart disease risk.

University of South Australia scientists have uncovered another reason why society should be paying more attention to mental health: it is closely aligned to blood pressure and heart rate variations.

Reduced heart rate variation (HRV) is common in people with mental illness and indicates that the body’s stress response is poor, exacerbating the negative effects of chronic stress.

In the study, published in BioMedical Engineering, a strong link between mental illness and widely fluctuating blood pressure, which can lead to cardiovascular disease and organ damage was found.

Four electronic databases were searched from inception until 2020 with studies included if they investigated blood pressure variability (BV) in individuals with mental illness (particularly anxiety/generalised anxiety disorder, depression/major depressive disorder, panic disorder and hostility) and without hypertension.

“All studies related to short-term BPV using ambulatory and home blood pressure monitoring found a higher BPV in individuals with depression or panic disorder,” noted the study.

It added: “Mental illness is significantly associated with an increased BPV in younger and middle-aged adults.

“All studies of ultra-short-term BPV using standard cardiac autonomic assessment; non-invasive continuous finger blood pressure and heart rate signals found significant association between BPV and mental illness.”

The current review found that people with mental illness were significantly associated with an increased BPV regardless of age.

“These findings may have important implications for patients’ future physical health and well-being, highlighting the need for comprehensive cardiovascular risk reduction.”

UniSA researcher Dr Renly Lim and colleagues from Malaysian universities also found clear evidence that mental illness interferes with the body’s autonomic functions, including blood pressure, heart rate, temperature and breathing.

“We reviewed 12 studies on people with anxiety, depression and panic disorders and found that, regardless of age, mental illness is significantly associated with greater blood pressure variations during the day,” Dr Lim said.

“We also found that for people who are mentally ill, their heart rate does not adapt to external stressors as it should.

“Contrary to what many people think, a healthy heart is not one that beats like a metronome. Instead, it should adjust to withstand environmental and psychological challenges. A constantly changing heart rate is actually a sign of good health.”

While large blood pressure variations (BPV) during the day are not ideal, at night the systolic pressure should dip by between 10 to 20 percent to allow the heart to rest.

The researchers found that in people with mental health issues, their blood pressure does not drop sufficiently at night.

The reduced dipping – under 10 percent – can be caused by many factors, including autonomic dysfunction, poor quality of sleep and disrupted circadian rhythms that regulate the sleep-wake cycle.

“The takeout from this study is that we need to pay more attention to the physical impacts of mental illness,” Dr Lim said.

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