The Emotional Life of the Heart

Psychological factors such as temperament, job status, personality, and childhood experiences may influence heart disease.

By Willow Lawson, published on January 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Lifestyle, cigarettes and fatty foods are the usual suspects in heart disease. Many decades of research have shown how bad choices in life can ravage the heart.

But the emotional picture of a healthy heart appears more complicated, according to research. Beyond the connection between the hostile type-A personality and heart attacks, or depression and heart disease, scientists have found intriguing links between a variety of psychological factors and heart disease.

Does status matter? Workers who are low on the totem pole in white-collar professions seem to have a higher risk for developing diabetes and heart disease, according to a study by University College London researchers. Psychological factors such as job strain and low social support were found to be significant risks for cardiovascular disease, even after controlling for family history, weight, physical activity and blood pressure.

A study in Psychosomatic Medicine has found that people who are physically healthy but prone to anger, hostility and mild depression have higher levels of C-reactive protein, a substance linked to increased risk of heart disease. The study is the first to tie a particular combination of negative emotions with cardiovascular health in people who don't have traditional lifestyle risk factors.

Could the roots of a heart attack stretch back into childhood? A sobering study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points to a strong link between negative childhood experiences, such as emotional abuse and neglect, and heart disease. Psychological factors proved as influential as obesity in terms of cardiovascular risk.

Type-D personalities—for "distressed"—may not benefit from stents, the tiny mesh tubes used to prop open clogged arteries. People who experience more negative emotions and who find it difficult to express these feelings have less success with the new medical technology after nine months than other patients.