We’ve known for some time that psychological distress increases the risk of heart attack and other heart issues. But how does this happen? Is it because people smoke more or don’t exercise enough when they are stressed-out? Or is it because stress can trigger unhealthy physical processes, such as inflammation and hypertension?
Researchers from the department of epidemiology and public health at University College, London, studied the extent to which behavioral and pathophysiological factors account for the relationship between stress and heart-related incidents. Reviewing data from the Scottish Health Survey, they compiled stress levels, health habits, and risk factors such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure for 6,576 healthy men and women. The scientists then compared this baseline data with follow-up information gathered over an average of 7.2 years. Data analysis showed that compared with happier people, those with psychological stress had a 50% higher chance of having a cardiovascular disease (CVD) event over the follow-up period. And the association between stress and CVD was largely explained by behavioral processes—especially smoking and lack of physical activity.
“Therefore,” lead study author, Mark Hamer, PhD, told HealthDay, “treating psychological disorders that aim to reduce cardiovascular disease risk should not only focus on the symptoms, but also on behavioral risk factors. It would be beneficial for cardiologists to work with psychologists.”
The results of this 7-year study were published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (2008; 52 , 2156–62). Further research was recommended.