10 Ways to Protect Your Heart From the Tolls of Recession

Healthy Diet, Exercise, Relaxing Techniques Can Go a Long Way in Reducing Ill Effects of Economy-Related Stress

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 12, 2009
7 min read

The wild stock market ride, rising foreclosure rates, and increasing layoffs may give you a queasy feeling in your stomach, but it’s your heart that is really at increased risk during a recession, cardiologists say.

Because of the stress that often comes with a recession, it’s important to take extra care of your heart’s health.

“Stress, anxiety, and depression all affect heart health,” says Stanley Hazen, MD, PhD, section head of preventive cardiology and rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. One major effect is accelerated atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Elevated blood pressure and heart rate are also side effects of stress.

Although a recession does not kill tens of thousands of people in a single catastrophic event, it harms health in the long run. The consequences of dealing with financial uncertainties can be devastating, experts say.

So what can you do to protect your health during the recession? Plenty. And you can do it with just a little extra effort -- and very little money.

Limit your exposure to the bad news as much as possible. There’s no benefit, experts say, to monitoring your 401(k) gains or losses on a daily basis. Ditto for your other investments. Listening to each new bit of news of how alleged scammers like Bernie Madoff made off with investors’ money only stresses us more.

We may not think of chemicals when it comes to matters of the heart, but much of the way the heart responds to stress comes down to body chemistry, explains Cam Patterson, MD, chief of the division of cardiology at the University of North Carolina Medical Center in Chapel Hill. And several different chemical molecules can harm us as a result of stress.

Our bodies react to stress by producing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Especially for those already at risk for heart disease, the results of an outpouring of stress hormones can be deadly -- or at least risky. They can build up over time, with effects that lead to damage of arterial walls and weakening plaque that may already be in a vessel.

“They make the plaques more likely to explode,” Patterson says.

We know you’ve heard that exercise is important, but during a recession, your health may depend on it. This is particularly true if you’ve been laid off, doctors say. The tendency may be to pull the covers over your head and stay in bed -- or sit in front of the TV. Don’t. Get your day started with a brisk walk, says Winston Gandy, MD, co-director of cardiac ultrasound at Piedmont Heart Institute in Atlanta.

Hazen recommends, “Do jumping jacks, take a milk crate and turn it upside down and step on it -- do something."

Repeated studies have shown the benefits of exercise to heart health, with as much as a 15% decrease in mortality rates with relatively minor changes in one’s exercise routine.

Sleep is not just a time of rest, but of restoration,” says Charles Raison, MD, director of the Mind-Body Clinic in the department of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine. While we are sleeping, our bodies repair a lot of the damage that happens during the day.

“Think of it like the night cleaning crew that comes in when the lights are down and the office is empty,” Gandy says.

Although we need eight hours of sleep a night, many Americans live in a sleep-deprived state, and that’s not good for our health during the recession, or any other time.

To sleep better, avoid doing stressful things before bedtime, such as paying bills, reading about your diminishing retirement fund, or having a tense conversation with your partner or family. If you have trouble sleeping on a regular basis, discuss this with your doctor.

Eat healthful foods and limit fatty, processed foods. Fresh vegetables, fruit, and lean meats should top your grocery list. Skip desserts and fried foods -- and save money, too.

If you’ve been laid off, it’s especially important to watch your weight, Gandy says. “Suddenly people begin to see 5 pounds around their middle, and they don’t know where it came from,” he says.

Often, it comes from mindless nibbling and snacking throughout the day. That extra weight, particularly around the middle, can increase a person’s risk of heart disease.

Even if you have not previously been vulnerable to depression, watch for its symptoms during these trying times. Depression affects not only your outlook but also your heart health.

"Depression is a marker that the brain and the body have gone into a state that increases your risk of disease," says Emory's Raison.

It's only natural that bad news gets us agitated and anxious, causing our blood pressure to rise and our arteries to "clamp," Raison says. "You have a fight with your wife, this happens. You lose your job, this happens."

These times that try men's and women's pocketbooks are much like that, Raison explains.

"We're all affected to some degree, and it emotionally brings it closer to (each of) us," he says.

Thus, it's important to keep a watchful eye for signs of depression, not only in yourself but in family members and significant others.

Because men are often reluctant to seek help for depression, men who have been laid off should pay special attention to signs of depression.

What to watch for?

Prolonged sadness; a loss of interest in things that typically bring joy; sleeplessness; anxiety; loss of concentration. If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor about possible depression and options for treatment, such as antidepressants and talk therapy.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, seek immediate help.

It may be tempting to drown our sorrows in libations, but it’s not very wise in the long run.

First, remember that alcohol is a depressant. Second, it adds extra calories. The list goes on. And remember that it costs money that you could spend on something good for your body.

Although studies have shown that alcohol in moderation can promote heart health, remember that more is not better.

Having a routine during the recession helps your health by bringing peace of mind and lowering your stress hormones.

“When you are used to a routine, you can minimize your risk,” Gandy says. Facing a foreclosure or being laid off makes us feel out of control. When we do things that help us feel in control, such as having a routine, we feel better.

Also, a routine is particularly important for those who have been laid off, Gandy says. When workers suddenly become nonproductive, they often experience a profound sense of loss that can lead to depression. Having a routine, as well as a plan for how you are going to find work, is essential.

When budgets are tight, many people are tempted to cut out or cut back on their prescription medications. Don’t do either, because it may harm your health. If you are having trouble paying for your medicines, talk to your doctor. You can also consider going generic, if a version exists for your medication, or ask if the manufacturer has a financial assistance program.

We’re not talking about financials -- we’re talking blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides. If you already have related medical problems, make sure to continue your doctor's recommended checkups. During the recession, your health may be more stressed than you realize.

Learn relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, mindfulness, or meditation. Even sharing your experiences in support groups can help your health during the recession. “You’ve got to find a happy place,” says Cleveland Clinic’s Hazen.

Many health centers and some places of worship offer free or inexpensive classes on relaxation techniques. Deep breathing can help lower your blood pressure as well as reduce the amount of stress hormones gushing into your bloodstream, and mindfulness relaxes you and helps you sleep better.

Such techniques can also help you avoid anger, an inevitable consequence of feeling out of control, which can lead to spikes in blood pressure during the day, Hazen says. Those spikes, though brief, put you at increased risk for a coronary event.

Above all, while the financial news is horrible, focus on the good things going on in your life. Even if you have lost a great deal in your retirement fund, maybe you still have your house. Maybe you still have a job. And with a little extra attention, you can still have your health.