Surprising Facts about Heart Disease

We all know the facts. Heart disease is the number one killer in the United States for both men and women. Having an active lifestyle combined with a healthy diet can reduce the risk of heart disease, but what about other factors, such as vitamin D deficiency, depression, or stress? How do they increase the risk of heart disease? Let’s take a moment to learn about some surprising factors that can increase the risk of heart disease and things that may lower the risk of heart disease.

A little Sunlight Does the Heart Good

Vitamin D is called the sunshine vitamin because our bodies will produce vitamin D when the sunlight hits the skins. Vitamin D is best known for helping the digestive system absorb calcium and phosphorus. That’s one way it helps to build and maintain healthy bones. But vitamin D can also help strengthen the heart. Getting enough vitamin D, either from foods or the sun, can strengthen heart contractions. Most people with heart failure are deficient in vitamin D. Besides being good for your digestive system, bone, and heart, vitamin D also been linked to lower risk of some types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, depression, osteoporosis, asthma, memory loss, and other chronic conditions.

Stressing the Heart

Historically, stress has served as a survival tool. It’s our fight or flight mechanism. When we become stressed our bodies produce adrenaline which diverts blood flow from the digestive and reproductive organs toward the heart and skeletal muscle tissue, improving capacity for running from life-threatening events. Adrenaline also constricts the blood vessels, allowing the body to retain blood if bitten or injured. This is useful if we're running from a vicious predator, but when we respond this way each morning to say backed-up traffic or deadlines, these daily hormonal surges can take a toll on our body. With a stressful response, the blood vessels constrict and create high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease, atherosclerosis and stroke.

A Sad Heart is an Unhealthy Heart

Depression and anxiety affect us more than just emotionally and mentally. They affect us physiologically too. Depression and anxiety are associated with the increased risk of cardiovascular disease. People who are depressed are more likely to develop heart disease or have a heart attack than people who aren’t depressed. And those who have had a heart attack or live with heart failure or another cardiovascular condition are more likely to fall into depression than those without these diseases.

Depression is hard on the heart and the arteries that carry its blood supply. Among healthy individuals, depression doubles the risk of sudden cardiac death and increases the chance of having a heart attack or stroke by 60 percent or more. The impact is even greater in people who already have a cardiac condition.

Rise Your Wine Glass to a Healthy Heart

Here is good news for wine lovers. Substantial evidence links drinking moderate amounts (up to one five-ounce glass per day for women and up to 2 five-ounce glasses per day for men) with protection against cardiovascular disease. Since the early 1990s red wine has had its health reputation when it was identified to be the mystery behind the “French paradox”- the observation that the French enjoy lower rates of heart disease despite their rich-in-saturated-fat diet. What makes red wine good for your heart? It’s the high concentration of antioxidants polyphenolics and anti-inflammatory properties of the compound resveratrol.

Increasing Omega-3 Fatty Acids Means a Stronger Heart

The Okinawans of Japan have more centenarians than anywhere else in the world. They also have the lowest death rates from heart diseases, stroke, and cancer (the top three killers in the US). Could it be all of the delicious sushi they’re eating? Studies have shown that eating one to two servings of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids a week could reduce your risk of dying of a heart attack by a third or more. Doctors have long recognized that the unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids in fats in fish appear to reduce your risk of dying of heart disease. For many years, the American Heart Association has recommended that people eat fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids at least twice a week.

Optimism May Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease

People who see the glass half full may be on to something. There is a strong inverse relationship between optimism and heart disease. There is evidence that psychological factors can influence our risk of physical illness and death. Researchers have found that optimistic women are less likely to develop heart disease or die from any cause than pessimistic women. They also found that a high level of cynical hostility (harboring hostile or mistrustful feelings toward others) increases a woman’s risk of dying from all causes. Overall, optimistic women were likely to have better lifestyle habits, less diabetes and high blood pressure, and fewer depressive symptoms than pessimistic women.


American Heart Association (2009, August 11). Optimism Appears To Lower Women's Risk Of Death, Heart Disease. ScienceDaily.¬ /releases/2009/08/090810161900.htm.

Lee, J., O’Keefe, J., Lavie, C., & Harris, W. (2009). Omega– 3 Fatty Acids: Cardiovascular Benefits, Sources and Sustainability. Nature Review Cardiology 6 (12), 753-758.

Raise Your Glass to Wine’s Health Benefits (2009). Environmental Nutrition 32 (12).

Traffic, Anger Stain the Heart (2009). Harvard Heart Letter 19 (11), 7.

Tropy, J., Burke, A., & Glass, M. (2009). Coronary Heart Disease Risk Factors. Journal of American Medical Association,302 (21), 2388.

Two-Way Street between Depression and Heart Disease (2009). Harvard Mental Health Letter, 25 (12) 1-3.

Vitamin D: A Bright Spot in Nutrition Research (2009). Harvard Heart Letter.

*Kaitaia Huynh is a Workplace Health Promotion Fellow at the National Lung, Blood, and Heart Institute, Center for Employee Wellness and Health Promotion. She will finish her Community and Public Health degree at University of Maryland, College Park this May. Kaitaia is also completing a second internship rotation at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, Office of Communications and Public Liaison.

Rachel Permuth-Levine, PhD, MSPH, is a public health practitioner and an expert in worksite health promotion. As a health behavior theorist, she strives to use evidence-based programs that produce the best results for her employees. Rachel is also a yoga and fitness instructor.