Women at Greater Risk Than Men for Stress-Related Heart Problems

Women at Greater Risk Than Men for Stress-Related Heart ProblemsWhen exposed to emotional stress, women may have greater risks than men for significant heart problems in the form of a condition called ischemic heart disease, a multinational research team reports.

Doctors and researchers are well aware that women have substantially different risks for heart disease than men. In a study published in late 2014 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers from the U.S. and Denmark assessed the gender-specific risks for ischemic heart disease in people exposed to mental/emotional stress. Among other things, these researchers concluded that ischemia-affected women exposed to stress undergo considerably more serious changes in the normal blood flow to their hearts than ischemia-affected men.

Heart Function and Stress

All adults experience emotional stress in one or more life areas, and stress exposure can have a seriously negative impact on a range of indicators for mental and physical health and well-being. No one knows exactly how stress exposure impacts cardiac health, the American Heart Association reports. However, unmanaged mental/emotional stress can exert a harmful influence on a number of factors known to contribute to heart health in one way or another. Examples of these factors include any given individual’s typical blood pressure levels, typical cholesterol levels, level of involvement in regular exercise, tendency to smoke cigarettes, tendency to consume alcohol in excessive amounts and typical level of food intake. Some people unintentionally worsen their situation by using damaging techniques, such as alcohol consumption and/or cigarette intake, to control their perceived stress exposure.

Effective stress management may have a significant positive effect on heart health, although evidence for such an effect is not entirely conclusive. Specific approaches to stress management include exercising regularly, avoiding excessive coffee intake, eating a generally well-balanced diet, keeping your weight within a healthy range for your height and age, staying away from cigarettes, keeping alcohol consumption within light or moderate levels and keeping a generally positive outlook on changing life circumstances.

Ischemic Heart Disease

Doctors and researchers use the term ischemic heart disease to refer to a reduction in blood flow to the heart caused by unusual narrowing of the arteries that feed the heart’s muscle tissues. Equivalent terms for the same basic condition include coronary heart disease and coronary artery disease. The heart tissues of people affected by reduced cardiac blood flow don’t get as much oxygen as the tissues of people unaffected by this condition. Potential consequences of lack of adequate oxygen in heart muscle include the painful warning sign known as angina, as well as the onset of a heart attack (which occurs when a coronary artery blockage completely deprives part of the heart of its required oxygen supply). Some people with ischemic heart disease never develop angina and may therefore be unaware of their impending heart attack risks.

Women, Stress and Ischemic Heart Problems

In the study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers from Duke University, the University of Cincinnati and Denmark’s University of Copenhagen used a project involving 310 adults to explore the gender-specific impact of emotional stress on the seriousness of ischemic heart disease. This participant group included 56 women and 254 men; ischemic heart disease was previously diagnosed in all of these individuals. When exposed to stress, human beings naturally and involuntarily attempt to pump increased amounts of blood from their hearts to their bodies. The researchers wanted to know if women with ischemic heart problems have a harder time meeting this demand for increased pumping volume than men with ischemic heart problems.

All of the study participants engaged in three tasks specifically designed to increase their mental/emotional stress levels. After each task, the researchers looked for indications of heightened blood flow problems among both the men and women. Upon reviewing the results of their work, they concluded that more than half of the women (57 percent) experienced ischemic events (i.e. substantial reductions in blood flow to the heart) after stress exposure. The researchers also concluded that just 41 percent of the men experienced such events in the aftermath of stress exposure. In addition, compared to the men, the women who underwent stress testing had meaningfully higher levels of exposure to generally negative emotional states and meaningfully lower levels of generally positive emotional states.

The study’s authors believe their work highlights the differences in ischemia-related risks for men and women exposed to serious stress. They also point toward a need for additional research on the gender-specific connections between stress exposure and heart health.

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