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Healthy You

The Two-Way Street Between Heart Disease and Depression

Wednesday, July 20, 2022 1:35 PM

older woman sitting on couch

By Isabelle Banin

Following her six-hour open heart surgery in 2006, Marla Cowan felt profound sadness unlike anything she had experienced before.

“I would break into tears for no apparent reason,” Cowan said. “I would be writing thank you notes to friends and words would be missing from the sentence. It was as if my brain had been altered.”

Dealing with heart disease is tough enough on its own. When depression is added into the mix, patients sometimes struggle more to improve their heart health and are at an increased risk of having another heart attack. It’s a two-way street: if you have one you’re more likely to have the other.

Luckily, patients suffering from both conditions are able to make full recoveries. Emotional support and professional psychological treatment go hand-in-glove with standard cardiovascular care.

Cowan reached out to WomenHeart, a national organization with local support groups and educational resources. Support groups were also instrumental in Cowan’s fight against breast cancer 30 years earlier.

“Listening to other women talk about their journey and their recovery gave me hope that I, too, could overcome,” she said.

To empower other women recovering from heart disease, Cowan began volunteering with WomenHeart in 2009.

We asked Joshua Loew, MD, Cowan’s cardiologist, how to help yourself or a loved one managing both psychological and heart health:

  • Feeling down after a cardiac event or while suffering from heart disease is normal. If you find yourself frequently feeling intense, negative emotions that are impacting your general well-being, you may have depression. Visit a psychologist or ask your doctor to refer you to a mental health professional as soon as possible. You may be recommended therapy, medication or a mix of the two.
  • Reaching out to a mental professional may still be necessary for those with less severe symptoms of depression. Even experiencing only a few depressive symptoms (such as feeling unmotivated, apathetic, fatigued and/or helpless) will make it difficult to follow your treatment plan. Seemingly small missteps, like occasionally not taking medication exactly as prescribed or skipping out on recommended exercise, can have far-reaching health consequences.
  • Find community with others in the same boat as you through organizations like Mended Hearts and WomenHeart. Mended Hearts offers support groups for all genders. Both organizations provide educational resources and have local chapters in the Chicagoland area.
  • Incorporate heart-healthy habits into your life-style, such as eating plenty of fruits, veggies, legumes and other heart-healthy foods. Quitting smoking, finding healthy ways to manage stress, and sleeping more will also help your heart.

Find a specialist at NorthShore Cardiovascular Institute for any heart-related concern, and visit Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences if you are also struggling with mental health. For further emotional support, reach out to WomenHeart’s Chicagoland or Mended Hearts Evanston/Chicago chapter. WomenHeart also offers a virtual group and one-on-one support options.