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Scientists discover how stress triggers heart attacks and strokes

13 January 2017 09:26

Stress could be as big a risk to heart conditions as smoking

Stress could be as big a risk to heart conditions as smoking

Stress could be as significant a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes as smoking, drinking and overeating, new research shows.

A study of 300 patients over an average of 3.7 years has prompted scientists to conclude that the effect of constant stress on an area of the brain explains the increased risk of cardiovascular conditions.

Those with increased activity in the amygdala region of the brain - associated with emotions such as anger and fear - are more susceptible to cardiovascular disease and develop problems sooner than those with lower activity, according to researchers from Harvard Medical School.

This new link suggests heightened levels of stress are directly linked to heart attacks, angina or strokes.

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Unique insight

Lead author Ahmed Tawakol, of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said: "Eventually, chronic stress could be treated as an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which is routinely screened for and effectively managed like other major cardiovascular disease risk factors.

"Our results provide a unique insight into how stress may lead to cardiovascular disease. This raises the possibility that reducing stress could produce benefits that extend beyond an improved sense of psychological wellbeing."

Amygdala sends signals to the bone marrow that produces extra white blood cells, causing arteries to develop plaques and become inflamed, the study shows.

More needs to be done

Ilze Bot of Leiden University in the Netherlands, says more research needs to be done: " In the past decade, more and more individuals experience psychosocial stress on a daily basis.

"Heavy workloads, job insecurity or living in poverty are circumstances that can result in chronically increased stress, which in turn can lead to chronic psychological disorders such as depression.

"These clinical data establish a connection between stress and cardiovascular disease, thus identifying chronic stress as a true risk factor for acute cardiovascular syndromes, which could, given the increasing number of individuals with chronic stress, be included in risk assessments of cardiovascular disease in daily clinical practice."

Emily Reeve, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: "The link between stress and increased risk of developing heart disease has previously focused on the lifestyle habits people take up when they feel stressed, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol and overeating.

"Exploring the brain's management of stress and discovering why it increases the risk of heart disease will allow us to develop new ways of managing chronic psychological stress.

"This could lead to ensuring that patients who are at risk are routinely screened and that their stress is managed effectively."

According to the research, which has been published in medical journal The Lancet, this is the first time the link has been made.