A staggering one in five people will go on to develop depression after a heart event. This can affect their ability to make the lifestyle changes necessary to maintain their health.
A cardiac event can have an enormous psychological impact. While modern diagnostic methods mean that disease is generally picked up and treated before it causes serious damage like a heart attack, discovering you have a heart problem and facing treatment is often no less confronting.
“When something happens to your heart it strikes at the core of your existence and your sense of mortality,” says Anita Elberts, Cardiac Rehabilitation Physiotherapist at Epworth Camberwell. “Some patients develop a type of reactive depression, which is quite normal considering they’ve been through such a major life event.”
According to the Australian Centre for Heart Health, common symptoms people experience include a loss of interest in usual activities, withdrawal, being short-tempered or, at the other extreme, overly emotional and quick to tears, changes in appetite, sex drive and sleeping patterns and constant worry about another heart event.
For some, these symptoms lift naturally over a few months. For others, they may still be present even a year down the track. Finding the motivation and confidence to make the changes necessary to live a full and active life can be much harder while in a depressed state.
“If you’re depressed you’re less likely to be active, more likely to smoke, more likely to go for comfort foods high in fat with poor nutritional value and you’re less likely to take your medication,” says Anita.
Attending a cardiac rehabilitation program is one of the best things patients can do to prevent or manage depression.
At Epworth, everyone who participates in cardiac rehabilitation is screened for depression, anxiety and stress, and then connected with a psychologist if that’s what’s needed. Patients also learn and benefit from each other.
“Even though a patient on the program has been treated, they’re not cured,” says Anita. “They still have cardiovascular disease and if they don’t manage their lifestyle and control their cardiac risk factors they’re going to end up back where they were. Sometimes just knowing you don’t have to deal with this by yourself can be an enormous help.”
The research shows that people who attend a cardiac rehabilitation program have better long-term health outcomes. Whether they’re incredibly self-motivated or need a little more support, a good program will teach them strategies and link them in with the resources they need to make changes and stick with them.
“Cardiac rehabilitation is the beginning of the rest of these people’s lives,” says Anita. “Seeing patients improve both physically and emotionally as a result of our program is so rewarding.”