Men and cardiovascular disease (CVD)
The U.S. Government health statistics don’t paint a very pretty picture of heart disease among men:
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men in the United States, killing 321,000 men in 2013—that’s 1 in every 4 male deaths.
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men of most racial/ethnic groups in the U.S.
- Half of the men who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms. Even if you have no symptoms, you may still be at risk for heart disease.
- Between 70% and 89% of sudden cardiac events occur in men.
I bet most men can name at least three risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD). The obvious culprits are smoking, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, high levels of “bad” cholesterol, high blood pressure, and a family history of heart disease. These factors are tangible and measurable.
Not-so-obvious risk factors
There are other contributors to CVD that are less tangible and measurable, but they can diminish the health of your “ticker” and circulatory system as surely as a Western diet of processed foods and sugars. These risk factors include
- Poor mental outlook
- Suppression of emotional expression
- Ineffective stress management
- Negative view of the world and one’s own life
It makes sense that men who have a positive view of themselves and the world, who express emotions in a constructive way instead of bottling them up, and who aren’t rattled or depleted by stress will generally feel happier than those who don’t. What most men don’t realize, however, is the biological impact of negative thoughts, repressed anger or sadness, and running a high level of anxiety in today’s often-stressful world. Sure, you can cut out smoking, change the food you eat, and exercise more. However, you may still be damaging your heart with a bad attitude, a gunnysack of old hurts and resentments, knee jerk anxiety and chronic tension.
Negativity is an internal stressor, and the body responds with the same biochemical surge as if an out-of-control car is speeding toward you: your body goes through a fight-or-flight response, which is a ramped-up readiness to adapt and survive. If the car bypasses you, Whew! You begin to calm down, though you may experience panting, weakness and shakiness as your body returns to its normal state. During that ramped-up period, your body was flooded with chemicals like adrenaline and steroids that would have served you well in an emergency. However, if they chronically exist in your body, they keep your heart and circulatory system (and other systems) in a constant state of low-grade inflammation.
Psychological and emotional wellness
You may be surprised to learn that, just as blood pressure and cholesterol can be measured to check if they are in a safe range, those biochemicals I just mentioned are also measurable. Many studies have been done in which participants are subjected to some form of physical stress, and meanwhile they are hooked up to measuring devices, their blood is occasionally drawn, and they submit periodic urine samples.
The same type of testing is also done for psychological, mental or emotional stress. Subjects undergo mental or psychological stressors while electronically hooked up, and having occasional fluid samples analyzed. Sure enough, the chemical messengers generated by the body are the same under internal psychological stress as external threats.
On the other hand, embracing a positive, optimistic approach to life generates physical wellness in the cardiovascular and other systems. Dr. Judith Orloff writes, “Positive attitudes accentuate wellness, negative attitudes impair it. Our beliefs trigger biochemical responses. No organ system is apart from our thoughts.”[i]
Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health underscore this. They reviewed 200 studies of psychological traits as well as risk factors for CVD and general health behaviors:
Happiness and optimism were both linked to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke, with the most optimistic people having the greatest benefits. The study, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, also found that optimistic and happy people tended to have healthier lifestyles. They exercised more, ate better, and slept more. In addition, they were less likely to have risk factors for heart disease and stroke, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity. All of this is known to contribute to better heart health.[ii]
Our physical health is intertwined with every aspect of our being. Optimum cardiovascular health depends on our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings as much as it does on aerobic exercise and taking fish oil. So, if you want a long and healthy life, increase your chances of attaining it by getting with a positive program.