The process for recovering from a heart attack is usually focused on physical care such as proper diet, exercise, and rest. However, there is solid research to support the power of loved ones in successful heart attack recovery.
A study out of Ohio State University looked at the effect of social isolation on mice after surviving cardiac arrest. Socially isolated mice that suffered simulated cardiac arrest had more emotional, neurological, and cardiac dysfunction than socially active mice that also had heart attacks.
Adult male mice were placed in either isolated housing or paired with females in housing for two weeks. A portion of the male rats was injected with certain chemicals that forced them into simulated heart failure and resuscitation. The mice then went back to their isolated or paired housing after the heart attacks. To measure the animals' levels of depression and anxiety, the mice were subjected to swim tests; more time floating than swimming was correlated to a depressive response to stress. The mice were also allowed to play freely in a common area; time spent outside the center of the common play field was related to anxiety. Cardiac function, brain damage, and depression were tested for three days after cardiac arrest and resuscitation.
The results showed that the mice that were isolated spent more time floating than swimming during the swim test, and a shorter amount of time playing in the center of the play field: both significant indications of depression and anxiety after heart attacks. They also suffered from more degrees of brain damage than the other mice, which impacted normal brain regulation of the heart. As a result, heart rate and function was irregular. Although all of the mice that were experimented on experienced neurological, cardiac, and behavioral dysfunction to some degree, social interaction appeared to significantly reduce the effects.
Stress reduction is a big part of the heart attack recovery process. Recent research has shown that being in a committed relationship may actually help reduce stress. Researchers from the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago found that when exposed to stressful situations, people in stable relationships demonstrated lower levels of stress than singles. Further research on emotional support and stress at the University of Toronto found that single mothers who felt unsupported suffered from considerably higher levels of stress than married mothers. So those with a loving, stable support system had better chances of feeling less stressed.
So just why is social isolation or lack of loving support detrimental to heart attack survivors? Lack of social interaction decreases blood flow to the brain and decreased blood flow to the brain causes irregular brain function, which can lead to emotional dysfunction and the development of depression. Depression has been found to cause brain damage in heart patients, actually decreasing the neurological control and function of the heart and, thus the heart’s ability to heal successfully. A study out of the Duke University Medical Center found that depression increased the mortality rate among heart patients during long-term periods of recovery. So this support isn't just needed at the beginning of the recovery process, but for the long haul.
So, reach out to loved ones during your heart attack recovery; it will stave off depression, help your heart heal, and it just might lengthen your life significantly.