Study reveals how stress causes heart attacks and strokes

Scientists have finally discovered how chronic stress raises heart attack and stroke risk.

15 February 2017
by Glynis Horning

It’s long been known that high blood pressure (hypertension), diabetes, smoking and obesity are risk factors for cardiovascular (heart) disease, but the role of stress, a psycho-social factor, has been harder to prove.

Now a study published in The Lancet has confirmed a link between greater activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain involved in stress, and increased risk of heart disease and stroke, and sheds light on how this happens.

In the study, led by Dr Ahmed Tawakol of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in the US, 293 patients with an average age of 55 and no known cardiovascular disease underwent PET/CT scans over three years. Activity in the amygdala and bone marrow was assessed, and arterial inflammation. The relationship between these findings and patients’ stress levels was analysed. Twenty-two of the patients had cardiovascular events over the next three years, from angina to heart failure and stroke.

The findings were clear – as the researchers put it: “In this first study to link regional brain activity to subsequent cardiovascular disease, amygdalar activity independently and robustly predicted cardiovascular disease events.”

How your brain reacts to stress

According to the study researchers, the amygdala signals bone marrow to temporarily produce more white blood cells to fight infection and repair damage, in an evolutionary fight-or-flight response to stress to arm the body for a harmful experience.

But in today’s world, chronic ongoing stress leads to an over-production of white cells. Instead of helping save our lives, these cells form plaque on artery walls, inflaming them and leading to heart disease and stroke.

“Our results provide a unique insight into how stress may lead to cardiovascular disease,” concluded Dr Tawakol. “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.”

Stress and heart disease in South Africa

All this has particular relevance in South Africa, which has one of the highest incidences of cardiovascular disease – and of stress. The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSFSA) reports that diseases of lifestyle are a leading cause of deaths and disability here, and cardiovascular disease tops the list. “Of all deaths in 2014,16% were due to heart disease and strokes,” says HSF dietitian and exercise physiologist Gabriel Eksteen.

More and more South Africans are experiencing stress daily, through heavy workloads, job insecurity and living in poverty. “In South Africa we also have high rates of interpersonal violence, abuse and crime; our sociopolitical landscape can be a cause of stress, and health concerns themselves, including communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS and lifestyle diseases, can cause significant stress,” Eksteen says.

“However, the amount of stress we experience is not a direct result of our environment – rather it depends on our ability to respond appropriately to environmental stressors.”

Says Prof Pamela Naidoo, CEO of the HSFSA and a clinical psychologist: “More should clearly be done to help people manage stress, from learning to set limits and saying no when necessary, to establishing support structures among friends, family and colleagues, and actively pursuing a hobby which helps you relax.

“It’s important to approach your life with a mind-body balance. Meditation, yoga and other physical activity, and eating a balanced diet can help you achieve this balance.”

How Clicks Clinics can help you

Clicks Clinics can help you prevent or manage heart disease with their wide range of screening tests. These include:

  • Blood Pressure (BP) Test
  • Cholesterol Testing and Consultation
  • Lipogram Blood Test (to determine different types of cholesterol)
  • Clicks Full Basic Screening (BP, Body Mass Index or BMI, meal guide and exercise plan)
  • Clicks Screening Measurements only (BP and BMI)
  • Clicks Comprehensive Screening (BP, BMI, Glucose and Cholesterol screening, plus meal and exercise plan)

To make an appointment at a Clicks Clinic, call 0860 254 257 or visit Clicks Clinics online.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

Read More: Heart Disease Super Section