When it comes to improving heart health, behavioral change related to diet, exercise and stress can mean the difference between life and death. With that in mind, researchers are looking at a potentially powerful motivator of change: guilt.

New research reported at the 2011 American College of Cardiology annual meeting investigates the role of emotions — specifically guilt — as a motivational factor for cardiovascular patients.

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researchers interviewed 100 adult cardiology outpatients about the role that guilt plays in their adherence to instructions given by their physicians and as part of their views of their own health.

They discovered a majority of the patients report that guilt provides motivation to make lifestyle changes. Interestingly, this finding was associated with having children, but no other demographic factors.

A majority of study participants believed health care providers should routinely address guilt with their patients. The concept of using guilt as a motivator was strongly supported by patients with a religious affiliation.

Of the entire sample, 66 percent of patients had experienced a major cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack. However, just over 20 percent of these patients reported feelings of guilt related to their health.

Still, half of these patients wished they had taken better care of themselves, but had no feelings of guilt relating to their health.

“When counseling cardiovascular patients about lifestyle, practitioners should consider addressing guilt as both a motivation for, and a barrier to, lifestyle change, particularly in patients with religious backgrounds,” concluded senior author James Kirkpatrick, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine, Cardiovascular Medicine Division at Penn.

“Further research is needed to explore the impact of guilt motivation on patient outcomes.”

Source: University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine