Controlling your emotions may play a vital role in Heart Disease

Most of the hearts on display this month are the red, symmetrical Valentine’s variety. But the other kind of heart – the organ, of course! – deserves your attention, too.

It’s Heart Month, and while heart disease remains the leading cause of death for American men and women, many of those deaths are preventable. The study here suggests that controlling your emotions might play a role. (We’ve added a few more practical suggestions further down too.)

An inflammatory pathway links atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk to neural activity evoked by the cognitive regulation of emotion.

Biol Psychiatry  2014 May 1;75(9):738-45. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.10.012. Epub 2013 Oct 23.
Gianaros PJ, Marsland AL, Kuan DC, Schirda BL, Jennings JR, Sheu LK, Hariri AR, Gross JJ, Manuck SB



Cognitive reappraisal is a form of emotion regulation that alters emotional responding by changing the meaning of emotional stimuli. Reappraisal engages regions of the prefrontal cortex that support multiple functions, including visceral control functions implicated in regulating the immune system. Immune activity plays a role in the preclinical pathophysiology of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (CVD), an inflammatory condition that is highly comorbid with affective disorders characterized by problems with emotion regulation. Here, we tested whether prefrontal engagement by reappraisal would be associated with atherosclerotic CVD risk and whether this association would be mediated by inflammatory activity.


Community volunteers (n = 157; 30-54 years of age; 80 women) without DSM-IV Axis-1 psychiatric diagnoses or cardiovascular or immune disorders performed a functional neuroimaging task involving the reappraisal of negative emotional stimuli. Carotid artery intima-media thickness and inter-adventitial diameter were measured by ultrasonography and used as markers of preclinical atherosclerosis. Also measured were circulating levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), an inflammatory cytokine linked to CVD risk and prefrontal neural activity.


Greater reappraisal-related engagement of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex was associated with greater preclinical atherosclerosis and IL-6. Moreover, IL-6 mediated the association of dorsal anterior cingulate cortex engagement with preclinical atherosclerosis. These results were independent of age, sex, race, smoking status, and other known CVD risk factors.


The cognitive regulation of emotion might relate to CVD risk through a pathway involving the functional interplay between the anterior cingulate region of the prefrontal cortex and inflammatory activity.

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More suggestions for getting on the road to good heart health:


Swap out animals for plants. No, we’re not suggesting that you replace Fido with a ficus! But substituting plant protein for animal protein may help you improve your cholesterol levels – and therefore your heart health. In place of beef chili, make a lentil- or bean-based chili. Include cholesterol-lowering foods like oatmeal and barley, too.

Put one foot in front of the other – and repeat – for about half an hour most days of the week. Walking (fast enough to break a sweat, but still being able to carry on a conversation) is fantastic for your heart. Exercise increases the flow of blood through your arteries, which, over time, leads to lower blood pressure, a lower resting heart rate, and more variability in your heart rate – all of which lower your risk for heart disease.

Pick a stress management practice. Unrelenting stress, depression, and anxiety are believed to increase levels of inflammatory compounds that can damage your blood vessels, which can eventually lead to a heart attack or stroke. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, and simple deep breathing are fantastic practices to incorporate into your health routine.

Quit smoking. Smoking (yes, even e-cigs) wreaks havoc on your health, including your heart. And cutting down doesn’t cut it: Smoking just one cigarette a day dramatically increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. If you smoke, get help from your doctor or participate in smoking cessation program.

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