According to a new study, young and middle-aged women who have recently had a heart attack might be at a higher risk for restricted blood flow to the heart due to mental stress. That may sound like a small segment of the population, but the study delves further. Researchers from Emory University found that mental stress-induced myocardial ischemia is more common among women under age 50 than men in the same age group. Myocardial ischemia occurs when the coronary arteries are blocked partially or completely, limiting flow of blood to the heart. This can lead to heart attack or abnormal heart rhythms, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"This is the first study to examine the cardiovascular effects of psychological stress as a possible mechanism for the greater mortality after myocardial infarction among younger women,"study researcher Viola Vaccarino, M.D., Ph.D., a professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the university's Rollins School of Public Health, said in a statement. The study was presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association, and included 49 men and 49 women ages 39 to 59 who had all had a heart attack within the last six months. Researchers tested the participants' responses to exercise stress (tested with a treadmill exercise) and mental stress (tested by having the participants do a public speaking task on an emotional topic). 52 percent of women under age 50 experienced mental stress-induced ischemia, while only 25 percent of men under age 50 experienced the condition. In addition, younger women in the study had higher levels of inflammation (indicated by levels of interleukin-6). Their heart rate variability was also more likely to dip from stress, compared with men It is not new information that heart disease is the #1 killer amongst women, but our mental health may be contributing to this staggering statistic. The correlation between emotional stress and heart problems may still be a cause and effect relationship. For example, if you are under stress, your blood pressure goes up, you may overeat, you may exercise less, and you may be more likely to smoke. But can we literally stress ourselves to death? Or at the very least, serious health complications? According to the 18-year long study published in the European Heart Journal, those who reported that stress affected their health “a lot or extremely” had double the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) compared to those who didn’t believe stress had a significant effect on their health. This is the first time that researchers have investigated people’s perceptions of their stress levels and related health consequences. No matter how you respond to stress, it is important to find ways to relax and calm the body especially for the sake of your heart. Research has shown that stress can trigger CHD events through several biological mechanisms including exaggerated heart rate and elevated blood pressure, increased stress hormone secretion (cortisol), and activation of inflammatory systems.