Patients with heart failure tend to fare better psychologically when families function well, understand the disease, and support patients in decisions about their care, concludes a study published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing in 2014 and led by Assistant Professor Kelly Stamp and researchers at Emory University and Georgia State University.

The investigators say their results underscore the need for clinicians to better understand the effects of age, ethnicity, family dynamics, and disease knowledge on patients’ well-being and to incorporate interventions aimed at decreasing depressive symptoms (such as sadness and feelings of guilt) and increasing emotional quality of life for individuals with heart failure, a chronic condition affecting more than five million Americans.

The study involved 117 patient-family pairs recruited from three large medical centers in the southeast U.S. and explored patients’ perceptions of their family functioning (such as communication and problem solving); autonomy support (how much relatives accept, rather than criticize, patient choices around care); and family members’ knowledge about heart failure and its management.

Among the findings: Younger patients and those perceiving poor family functioning should be considered at risk for greater depressive symptoms and a diminished quality of daily life. Ethnicity was also a factor in outcomes. For example, researchers noted that African-American patients appeared less sensitive than whites to lower family functioning, which could be partly explained by having more sources of emotional support, such as extended families and faith communities.

—Research summary by Debra Bradley Ruder