Impact of stress – Part 1: Increases risk of heart disease and stroke

“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.” – Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Frequent encounters with stress tend to increase an individual’s propensity to have a stroke or develop a heart disease. Individuals living under stressful conditions are more likely to develop and follow unfavorable habits, such as smoking, drinking and poor eating patterns, which, in turn, increase the risks for cardiovascular diseases (CVDs).

Among all chronic diseases afflicting people, heart diseases have emerged as the leading factor behind casualties across the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 17.7 million people succumbed to CVDs in 2015. Besides representing 31 percent of all global deaths, around 7.4 million of deaths were due to coronary heart diseases and 6.7 million deaths occurred due to stroke.

On the other side, acute stress, also diminishes the blood flow to the heart that may cause heartbeat rates to become irregular, making a person more vulnerable to blood clotting and significantly increasing his or her vulnerability to CVDs.

A maiden study, linking regional brain activity to subsequent cardiovascular disease, and published in the Lancet, has identified the brain region that activates during stressful periods, which is linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Moreover, it has determined the process by which stress trigger CVDs.

The findings of the above study have been widely commended for widening the scope of treatment for stress-related CVDs.  The current article highlights the new possibilities of understanding the innards of stress and its impact on the heart.

Increased amygdala activity linked to risk of cardiovascular disease

Until the publication of this study, the link between stress and its impact on the bone marrow and arteries was identified only in animal models. In the absence of conclusive evidence related to the above effects of stress in humans, the close relationship between stress and CVDs remained ignored for long.

However, some individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression exhibited hyperactivity during stressful episodes in the amygdala, a brain component that is the hub of emotions and emotional behavior.

The study included 293 patients whose brain activity, bone marrow, spleen activity and inflammation of arteries were recorded using positron emission tomography/computed tomography (PET/CT) scan for over 3.7 years to assess their risk of developing CVDs.

The findings revealed that:

  • As many as 22 patients experienced a cardiovascular dysfunction that included heart attack, angina pectoris, heart failure, stroke and peripheral arterial disease.
  • Elevated activity in the amygdala was linked to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke and individuals who fall under this category develop heart-related problems faster than those with lower activity in the amygdala.
  • Increased activity in the amygdala was also associated with increase bone marrow activity and inflammation in the arteries that could possibly increase the risk of CVDs. The investigators believe that this mainly occurs because that amygdala may relay messages to the bone marrow to increase the production of white blood cells (WBCs) that can plague and inflame arteries.

Another supplementary study that entailed 13 patients with PTSD examined their stress levels by a psychologist and measured the level of C-reactive protein, an indicator of inflammation levels in the body, using PET scan. Reportedly, patients who displayed the highest levels of stress also displayed the maximum amygdala activity that was concurrent with the inflammation of their blood and artery walls.

Mental health more important than wealth

Living in a world bogged down with stressful problems, such as poverty, job insecurity, excess workload, etc., mental disorders are now more prevalent than before. Apart from well-known triggers for CVDs, such as smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, etc., chronic stress has also emerged as a major risk factor. The need of the hour is to conduct relevant studies to corroborate the findings of the above study.

If you or a loved one is suffering from any mental disorders, contact the Colorado Mental Health Help to access the finest health facilities. Call us at our 24/7 helpline number 866-899-5063 or chat online with our medical advisers to know more about mental health rehab in Colorado.