Harvard Heart Letter

Special section: Cardiovascular connections: Two-way street between head, heart

Special section: Cardiovascular connections

Two-way street between head, heart

Chemical conversations between the head and the heart have profound effects on both, for better and for worse.

Depression, loneliness, anxiety, anger, chronic stress, and other emotions or behaviors can promote heart disease or make it worse. Stress hormones are one of the links between head and heart. They constrict blood vessels, make the heart beat faster, and can disrupt the electrical signals that give the heart its steady rhythm. Depression, anxiety, loneliness, and similar conditions can also make it hard to exercise, take necessary medications, or see a doctor.

brain scan showing white matter

What's going on in your heart and arteries can, in turn, affect your mental health. Research suggests that high blood pressure, cholesterol-clogged arteries, inflammation, and other risk factors for heart disease and stroke contribute to Alzheimer's disease and a condition called vascular dementia, which is characterized by the appearance of "white matter" in MRI and CT scans of the brain (highlighted by the arrows in the figure above). These thieves of memory and personality affect up to half of Americans over age 85.

The news isn't all bad. Positive emotions, personal connections, stress-busting techniques like exercise and meditation, and anger-management strategies can protect both the heart and the brain. And improving blood flow to the brain and preventing strokes — the big, serious kind as well as tiny, unnoticeable ones — may maintain memory well into old age. How can you take control of the intersection between your head and heart? Work your body and your brain as often as you can. Keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar in check. Feed your brain and body with more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and other lean protein, and vegetable oils — and less saturated fat, processed carbohydrates, and red meat.