Stress Makes for a Fragile Ticker

Heart disease deaths and heart attacks higher in people who reported high stress

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) The heart is a tough muscle, but stress can take a real toll. After years of stress, that tough muscle may become more vulnerable to disease or heart attack.

In a recent study, researchers looked at a large group of patients over an 18 year period to see who had experienced heart trouble.

The researchers found that people who said that stress affected their health at the start of the study were twice as likely to have heart trouble than people who did not feel like stress affected their health.

"Let your doctor know if stress is bothering you."

Hermann Nabi, PhD, a senior research associate at the Centre for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) in France, led an investigation into the role of stress in heart disease.

According to these researchers, stress is experienced when a person feels that the demands of life tax or exceed that person's capacity to adapt to the situation, resulting in psychological and biological changes that may place him or her at risk for disease.

"Response to stress can vary greatly between individuals," the authors wrote.

Previous research has shown stress can play a role in heart disease, diabetes, obesity and depression. However, stress research has yet to outline a cause and effect relationship between stress and disease.

The researchers in this study used data from 7,268 men and women from the ongoing British Whitehall II study.

Over the course of 18 years, 352 people in the study either died from heart disease or had a first-time non-fatal heart attack.

As part of the Whitehall II study, the participants reported stress levels at the start of the study in 1985. The average age of Whitehall II participants was 50 years of age in 1985.

The researchers found that people who had reported stress that affected their health "a lot or extremely" were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease or have a heart attack compared to people who reported that stress did not affect their health.

The researchers posed a few possibilities for how stress could aggravate heart disease: exaggerated heart rate, increased blood pressure, changes in the stress hormone cortisol, activation of the inflammation system and/or an imbalance in the nervous system.

Stressed people may also be more likely to practice health damaging behaviors, such as smoking, heavy drinking or lack of physical activity.

The study authors suggested future studies should test to see whether stress treatments can reduce disease risk in patients who report stress.

This study was published in June in the European Heart Journal.

The Medical Research Council, the British Heart Foundation, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institutes of Aging, the EU OSH ERA Research Programme, and the Academy of Finland provided funding for this project. No conflicts of interest were declared.

Review Date: 
June 27, 2013
Last Updated:
September 6, 2013