Found: the link between stress and heart disease

While smoking, high blood pressure and diabetes are widely accepted risk factors for heart disease, many experts have also believed there’s a link between stress and heart health. And now there’s evidence to shed light on why this might happen.

According to a study published in The Lancet medical journal, heightened activity in an area of the brain called the amygdala is associated with a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

The amygdala is a region of the brain that’s involved in stress, with previous studies finding it’s more active in people with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. But until now, there hasn’t been any evidence to link the amygdala with the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Brain scans evidence

The researchers who carried out the study scanned the brains of 293 people. More than three years later, 22 of the volunteers had experienced cardiovascular problems such as a heart attacks angina, heart failure, stroke and peripheral arterial disease. Those with higher amygdala activity, say the experts, had a higher risk of subsequent cardiovascular disease and developed problems sooner than those with lower amygdala activity.

“Our results provide a unique insight into how stress may lead to cardiovascular disease,” says the study’s lead author Dr Ahmed Tawakol of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

“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.”

British Heart Foundation senior cardiac nurse Emily Reeve agrees that the study’s findings could lead to better care for those with high stress levels in the future.

“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,” she says.

“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.”

If you’re worried about your stress levels, why not ask your local Careway pharmacist for advice? They can give you lots of tips about things you can do to relax, and may even be able to recommend over-the-counter products designed to help you feel more calm.

Find your nearest Careway pharmacy by using our Pharmacy Finder.