Researchers have greatly expanded their knowledge of the causes and effects of heart health over the past few years, clarifying the benefits of exercise and revealing connections with other dimensions of wellness. To optimize the impact of wellness programs on heart health, it is important to explore the latest in heart health research.
Heart Health And Brain Health
Despite popular belief, exercising the mind is not the only way to maintain brain health. While cognitive exercises are important, recent research suggests that other factors have a considerable impact on brain health.
Several studies found that heart health and brain health are intertwined. A 2021 study revealed that cardiovascular risk factors (e.g., body mass index, fasting glucose, and systolic blood pressure) are associated with early declines in global cognition and processing speed. The researchers also discovered that when cardiovascular risk factors were present in early adulthood (ages 18 to 30), cognitive decline appeared earlier and was significantly more severe, with some young adults experiencing 80% to 100% greater decline than individuals who developed risk factors later in life.
The upshot is that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. As a result, organizations should supplement their intellectual wellness strategies by including activities and programs that improve heart health (e.g., step competitions or smoking cessation). They should also highlight these findings when promoting their wellness programs to encourage employees who are more concerned with their minds than their hearts to participate.
Heart Health And Mental Health
With rates of mental illness rising, researchers are focusing heavily on its association with other dimensions of wellness. Specifically, they are identifying potential connections between psychiatric conditions and heart health.
Researchers at Oxford University uncovered three striking statistics that demonstrate the significant role mental illness plays in the development, prevalence, and prognosis of cardiovascular disease. First, they found 25% of the participants diagnosed with heart disease also suffered from a psychiatric condition compared to 16% of the general population. Second, they discovered that psychiatric diagnoses preceded cardiovascular disease in 60% of the patients, meaning it may play a causal role. Lastly, the research revealed that patients with heart disease and a psychiatric condition had an elevated risk of premature mortality relative to their biological siblings who are unaffected by their mental ailments.
These findings highlight the interconnectedness between physical and mental health and strengthen the case for a comprehensive array of mental health benefits. Even organizations primarily focused on increasing physical health must include mental health solutions in their wellness programs, as they are essential for maximizing the program's effects on heart health.
Heart Health, Social Isolation, And Loneliness
The pandemic has highlighted both the prevalence and significance of social isolation and loneliness. As many continue to struggle with these conditions, researchers are actively examining their causes, effects, and treatments.
In a recent study, researchers confirmed that social isolation (measured in terms of physical distance from other people) and loneliness (defined as an abstract feeling of separation one can experience even when they are close to others) are independently and jointly bad for heart health. Specifically, the findings revealed that social isolation and loneliness independently increased cardiovascular disease risk by 8% and 5% for postmenopausal women, respectively. When experienced concurrently, the risk of cardiovascular disease increased by as much as 27%. Further research will need to confirm if these results generalize to other populations.
The findings are especially significant for businesses trying to determine the extent to which they should allow employees to work remotely. This is because other studies have found that teleworking can increase professional isolation and loneliness. Given that isolation and loneliness have been independently and jointly linked to adverse heart health outcomes, employers who continue to utilize remote work arrangements must implement policies to ensure that employees stay connected.
Heart Health And Walking Pace
Wellness programs often contain exercise competitions where the employees who take the most steps win prizes. The goal of these activities is in part to improve employees’ heart health.
Though studies have found that these wellness programs are good for heart health, there is room for improvement. This is because step counts aren’t the only relevant measure. One study found that walking pace is a critical variable. Specifically, the researchers found that when compared with women who walked at a casual pace, those who walked at an average or fast pace had a 27% and 34% lower risk of heart failure, respectively. Additionally, they discovered that fast walking for less than one hour per week was associated with the same risk reduction of heart failure as average or casual walking for more than two hours per week.
By incorporating pace awareness, either through education, a wearable device, or a formal walking program, organizations can increase the return on their wellness dollars in two ways. First, because pace awareness may encourage employees to walk faster, it can improve the heart health benefits for those already participating in the program. Second, it can improve participation rates. This is because a lack of time is one of the most frequently cited barriers to participation in wellness programs. Since one can achieve the same heart health benefits in half the time by walking faster, wellness programs that incorporate pace can reduce the amount of time that employees need to set aside to participate.