And yet, medicine today continues to conceptualize the heart as a machine. This conceptualization has had great benefits.
Cardiology, my field, is undoubtedly one of the greatest scientific success stories of the past 100 years. Stents, pacemakers, defibrillators, coronary bypass surgery, heart transplants — all these things were developed or invented after World War II.
However, it’s possible that we are approaching the limits of what scientific medicine can do to combat heart disease. Indeed, the rate of decline of cardiovascular mortality has slowed significantly in the past decade. We will need to shift to a new paradigm to continue to make the kind of progress to which we have become accustomed.
In this paradigm, psychosocial factors will need to be front and center in how we think about heart problems. This is going to be an uphill battle, and it remains a domain that is largely unexplored.
The American Heart Association still does not list emotional stress as a key modifiable risk factor for heart disease, perhaps in part because blood cholesterol is so much easier to lower than emotional and social disruption.
There is a better way, perhaps, if we recognize that when we say “a broken heart,” we are indeed sometimes talking about a real broken heart. We must, must pay more attention to the power and importance of the emotions in taking care of our hearts.
Emotional stress, I have learned, is often a matter of life and death.
Resources for Further Reading: