Most teens aren’t thinking about their heart health – but if they have bipolar disorder, they should be

Ben Goldstein wins 2017 Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize for Mental Health Research
Left to right: George Weber; Dr. Benjamin Goldstein; Dr. Zul Merali; and Scott McLean

In most instances, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses strike when a person is young. Early intervention is critically important - and Dr. Benjamin Goldstein believes that intervention should focus on the heart, not just the head.

Dr. Goldstein is the 2017 recipient of the The Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize for Mental Health Research for his work exploring the links between bipolar disorder and heart (cardiovascular) health in teens.

“My hope is to get to adolescents early; we want to reduce the number of poor outcomes. One thing that particularly drew me to the treatment of bipolar disorder is there is the capability to lead a totally fulsome life if symptoms are properly controlled,” says Dr. Goldstein, a clinician scientist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

His studies have shown higher prevalence and earlier onset of cardiovascular disease in people with bipolar disorder. For a teen with bipolar disorder, the drawbacks of being sedentary or having untreated risk factors for heart disease are multiplied. Adding to this, cardiovascular risk factors such as diabetes and obesity negatively affect mental health and the ability to treat bipolar disorder. 

This knowledge led Dr. Goldstein to explore the shared biology between heart health and brain health in adolescents. In addition to gaining new insight into the causes of bipolar disorder, he hopes to show that treatments typically used to help people with heart disease, such as diet, exercise, and heart medications, could also reduce or eliminate symptoms of bipolar disorder. 

“The world has moved from the belief that mental illness is all in your mind to recognizing it is in your brain. We’re taking it a step further and saying that mental illness could be a multi-system disease that affects both brain and body,” says Dr. Goldstein. 

So it’s important to encourage, support and enable adolescents with or without bipolar disorder to achieve improved heart health. “Not only would that be in service of their long term physical health, but also in service of their current emotional and cognitive health,” says Dr. Goldstein.

"The world has moved from the belief that mental illness is all in your mind to recognizing it is in your brain. We’re taking it a step further and saying that mental illness could be a multi-system disease that affects both brain and body." - Dr. Benjamin Goldstein, 2017 recipient of the The Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize for Mental Health Research

He is also optimistic that showing a direct connection between mental health and physical health will reduce the stigma so often associated with mental illness. “We want to find evidence that proves it’s not all in your head,” he says.

The Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize for Mental Health Research, established in 2015, celebrates early career researchers in the area of mental health and encourages them to continue their research in Canada. The $100,000 annual prize recognizes excellence in clinical research, innovative thinking, collaboration, imagination and originality. 

“The Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize rewards promising researchers who approach mental health in innovative ways. Dr. Goldstein’s focus on improving heart health for the joint purpose of improving mental health certainly fits that bill,” says Dr. Zul Merali, president and CEO of The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research.

“Dr. Goldstein’s unique approach could have a huge impact on research and clinical care for many people suffering from bipolar disorder, in Canada and around the world,” adds Dr. Chris Carruthers, Chair of the Mach-Gaensslen Foundation of Canada. 

The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research, affiliated with the University of Ottawa, is a leader in fostering innovation at a national level and global knowledge-sharing with the ultimate goal of helping people get better, faster.