How stress puts us at a higher risk of heart attack: Higher activity in certain ...

In a four-year trial scientists at Harvard Medical School used high-tech MRI scanners to examine the brains, hearts and bone marrow of nearly 300 patients

In a four-year trial scientists at Harvard Medical School used high-tech MRI scanners to examine the brains, hearts and bone marrow of nearly 300 patients

A stressful life significantly increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, new evidence suggests.

Scientists at Harvard Medical School have directly linked anxiety and stress to cardiovascular disease for the first time - and discovered exactly why the two are linked.

Experts last night said the findings - the strongest yet to link mental wellbeing with physical health - suggest doctors should start treating people with chronic stress as being at risk of heart attacks.

In a four-year trial they used high-tech MRI scanners to examine the brains, hearts and bone marrow of nearly 300 patients.

They found that people with higher activity in the amygdala region of the brain, the part associated with stress, were 59 per cent more likely over the next 3.7 years to develop heart failure or angina or suffer a heart attack or stroke.

Examination of the scans, published last night in the Lancet medical journal, showed that people with an over-active amygdala also had more clotting in the aorta - the main artery to the heart.

The images also showed greater cellular activity in the bone marrow.

The team think this is because the stressed brain sends signals to the bone marrow to produce extra white blood cells, which play a crucial role in supporting the immune system - a natural defence mechanism if someone feels under threat.

But if too many white blood cells are produced this encourages clotting in the arteries, which become inflamed and furred, a major cause of heart attack and stroke.

They found that people with higher activity in the amygdala region of the brain, the part associated with stress, were 59 per cent more likely over the next 3.7 years to develop heart failure or angina or suffer a heart attack or stroke

They found that people with higher activity in the amygdala region of the brain, the part associated with stress, were 59 per cent more likely over the next 3.7 years to develop heart failure or angina or suffer a heart attack or stroke

Lead author Dr Ahmed Tawakol, of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, said: ‘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.

‘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.’

Writing in a linked comment in the Lancet, Dr Ilze Bot of Leiden University in the Netherlands, said: ‘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.’

‘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,' Emily Reeve, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation said (stock image)

‘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,' Emily Reeve, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation said (stock image)

She said more research is needed to confirm the new findings, but added: ‘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.

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