Racing through traffic. Meeting a deadline. Giving a presentation. These and other stressors take a toll on your immediate health, increasing blood pressure, heart rate, and the release of harmful hormones like cortisol.
But it’s the long-term effects you may really need to worry about. Chronic stress is associated not only with complaints like insomnia, muscle aches, and gastrointestinal distress, but also with the development of major diseases, including heart disease.
Now researchers reporting at the 2016 meeting of the American College of Cardiology have revealed more about how these effects occur. Using the PET/CT scans of almost 300 people, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston showed for the first time a link between activity in the amygdala—the brain’s “stress center”—and arterial inflammation, a key culprit behind the build-up and rupture of plaque in artery walls and subsequent cardiovascular events, including heart attacks and strokes.
Prior to their scans, adults in the study got injections of a radioactive atom attached to a glucose molecule as a tracer. Areas of greater brain activation metabolized more of the glucose and thus showed up more prominently on the scan. Areas in the amygdala, which registers emotional responses like fear and stress, were then compared to other brain regions.
The result: Patients who had greater activity in the amygdala had more inflammation in their arteries and also a greater chance of having a major cardiovascular event in the years following the scan. These patients also had greater activation in their bone marrow, which produces immune cells that can trigger inflammation in other parts of the body.
After taking into account other cardiovascular risk factors, the researchers concluded that for every unit increase of activity in the amygdala, there was a 14-fold greater risk for heart attacks and strokes. Put another way, 35 percent of the patients whose scans revealed high activation in tissues of the amygdala with increased inflammation experienced cardiovascular events, compared to just 5 percent in patients who had low activation of this brain region.
These findings suggest that the effects of stress may be as damaging to the heart and blood vessels as factors like smoking and diabetes. Yet unlike these risk factors, stress’s effects on the cardiovascular system may not be obvious until a heart attack or stroke has occurred. For this reason, inflammation testing may make good sense, especially among otherwise healthy people. Our Know Your Risk™ program explains how biomarkers and other factors may be increasing your chances for a major cardiovascular event.
Whether or not strategies to tame stress can reverse these mechanisms has yet to be demonstrated. But they can’t hurt.
If stress is an on-going challenge, it may be wise to seek out a therapist trained in different methods of stress reduction. And research has shown that tactics like an exercise habit, meditation, yoga, strong social bonds, and even laughter can help by creating a buffer against stress and its harmful effects on health and the heart.