How to live longer: People with a certain character linked to reduced heart disease risk

Professor Hugh Watkins on genetic medicines for heart disease

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Published in the Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology journal, the study looked at the impact of mindset and cardiovascular disease and whether a change in this mindset could improve overall cardiovascular outcomes.

The study concluded that the stronger someone’s moral character, the greater their integrity, the less likely they were to develop heart disease and depression.

Writing in the journal, the authors concluded “that persons who live their life according to high moral standards have substantially lower odds of depression”. They added there were “indications found for a protective role of strong mental character in mitigating anxiety and cardiovascular disease”.

Speaking about the research, lead author Dorota Weziak-Bialowolska said: “We know that character strengths are positive personality traits that are essential to one’s identity, contribute to the greater good, and play a favourable role in promoting well-being and positive health.”

Ms Bialowolska added: “Our findings show that persons who live their life according to high moral standards have substantially lower odds of depression. They also suggest that preferences for delayed gratification may have some potential to be relevant for mitigating risk of anxiety and using strengths of moral character for helping others may be beneficial for one’s physical health (for both self-reports of one’s physical health as well as cardiovascular disease prevention).”

While the research demonstrates the potential positive benefits of strong moral character on cardiovascular and mental health, it does mean that said strong moral character is a silver bullet.

Ms Bialowolska said: “Further research is needed to corroborate the role of strengths of moral character for population mental health and physical health. However, as these positive personality traits are aligned with the nearly universal human desire to become a better person, and are malleable, public health policies promoting them are likely to receive positive reception from the general public.”

As a result, the study suggests that mental health strategies could form a part of cardiovascular health treatment and act as a form of supplementary psychological treatment.

What are the main symptoms of heart disease?

There is no one set of symptoms for heart disease; the condition is less of a standalone phenomenon and more a gamut of conditions which affect the ability of the body to effectively send blood and oxygen around the body.

The most common form of heart disease in the UK is coronary heart disease (CHD) – a condition which occurs when the coronary arteries of the heart become narrowed by a build-up of fatty materials such as plaque.

Symptoms of the condition include:
• Chest pain
• Shortness of breath
• Pain throughout the body
• Feeling faint
• Feeling sick.

Although these are symptoms which can arise, the NHS says “not everyone has the same symptoms and some people may not have any before coronary heart disease is diagnosed”.

What are the main causes of CHD?

Heart disease is caused by a build-up of fatty materials and plaque in the main coronary arteries of the heart, this is a process known as atherosclerosis and the deposits are known as atheroma.

The main drivers of atherosclerosis are normally poor lifestyle habits such as inactivity, a diet high in fat and salt, smoking, and consumption of excessive levels of alcohol.

Furthermore, patients may be at risk of atherosclerosis if they already have another cardiovascular condition such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. In addition, those with diabetes may be at increased risk of developing the condition.

However, while a serious and potentially fatal condition, CHD can be treated through a range of means from the everyday to the invasive.

The cheapest and often most effective form of CHD treatment is one which can be done without the need for medicinal intervention. The treatment in question is a change in lifestyle habits such as quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, and eating a balanced diet.

Alongside lifestyle changes, medicines may also be prescribed to treat the symptoms of CHD. These medications will aim to either widen the arteries or treat an underlying condition such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Should neither of these solutions work at treating the disease, more invasive procedures may be required such as a coronary angioplasty. This involves the insertion of a small balloon into the fatty tissue to widen the artery.

However, while surgery is an option, the aim will always be to treat the condition using lifestyle changes and medication to treat the causes which have led to the development of the CHD.

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