Cardiac psychology is emerging medical field

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:33 pm

Behavioral medicine is a specialty area within the profession of psychology that focuses on treating patients with medical conditions. Many medical problems, including digestive disorders, chronic pain, asthma, diabetes, obesity and heart disease, are often linked with behavioral and psychological factors that affect the onset, course and recovery of these disorders.
Cardiac psychology is a newer specialty area that addresses the lifestyle factors that can promote the development of heart disease and that can interfere with the successful treatment of diagnosed heart disease.
Cardiologists and cardiac surgeons excel at treating life-threatening cardiac events with medication, state-of-the-art medical equipment and surgical procedures. These physicians are also highly aware of the lifestyle factors that influence heart disease because they often recommend that patients stop smoking, lose weight, decrease stress levels and begin exercising.
It is the role of the cardiac psychologist to help patients and their families develop and maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle in order to prevent the occurrence of heart disease and/or reduce the risk of additional cardiac events once heart disease has been diagnosed.
The term "cardiac psychologist" is used to refer to doctoral level psychologists and to master’s level psychotherapists who have appropriate training in cardiac psychology.
Cardiac psychologists are involved in primary prevention, which refers to preventing heart disease in patients who have risk factors but have not yet been diagnosed with heart disease. These risk factors include family history, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sedentary lifestyle, stress, diabetes, lack of social support, anxiety, depression, excess alcohol use and overweight/obesity. When these risk factors are treated effectively, heart disease can be prevented or delayed.
Cardiac psychologists are also involved in secondary prevention, or in treating risk factors after the diagnosis of heart disease. Secondary prevention also involves treating patients following medical/surgical procedures for heart disease such as catheterization, angioplasty and bypass graft surgery. The focus of treatment here is to reduce the progression of heart disease and/or to reduce the risk of another cardiac event.
Patients with risk factors usually know and have probably been told by their doctors they should lose weight, eat better, start exercising, stop smoking, etc. It’s not because people don’t want to be healthy that they often "fall off the wagon" in their attempts to make these changes.
Behavioral medicine is a specialty discipline that emphasizes making change for better physical and emotional health. With the help of a cardiac psychologist, patients can identify and change the beliefs, behaviors, emotions and lifestyle patterns that interfere with heart-healthy living. It is important to understand what gets in the way of maintaining health-promoting changes, so "falling off the wagon" is no longer an issue.
Improving overall quality of life for cardiac patients and their families is a primary goal of treatment. Psychological intervention serves to reduce the high levels of anxiety, depression and fear cardiac patients often experience. When patients know they are doing all they can to lead a healthy lifestyle, they feel better and have better outcomes.
Successful treatment results in more satisfying lives for the patient as well as their family.
Dr. Laura Lees, Psy.D., CEDS,
is the founder of Lees Psychological Services Inc. in The Center of Excellence in Wauwatosa.
She can be reached at, or by calling (414) 774-6878.

April 15, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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