Agoraphobia Can Greatly Increase Heart Disease Risk

Posted on March 3rd, 2016

Women have a relatively high rate of exposure to agoraphobia and therefore may have a gender-specific risk for blood vessel inflammation that can promote heart disease, according to recent findings from a team of Swiss researchers.

Current evidence indicates that people diagnosed with an anxiety disorder have increased chances of developing heart disease, a condition potentially linked to increased levels of blood vessel inflammation. In a study published in April 2015 in the journal PLOS One, researchers from several Swiss institutions explored the connection between inflammation, heart disease and the officially diagnosable anxiety disorder agoraphobia. These researchers also explored the role of gender in the odds that any given person will develop agoraphobia symptoms.

Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is characterized by a strongly fearful reaction to public situations or locations that can potentially limit a person’s ability to move about freely, leave quickly or receive assistance if something goes wrong. A person affected by the disorder may do such things as avoid crowded places, avoid being in public on his or her own, or avoid isolated structures like bridges. Like all forms of anxiety disorder, agoraphobia centers largely on unrealistic fears or fears that don’t play a significant part in the thought processes or emotions of individuals without the condition. Specific symptoms of anxiety in an agoraphobic person may include an accelerated heartbeat, shortness of breath accompanied by chest tightness or pain, gastrointestinal upset, muscle tremors, lightheadedness, nausea, a choking sensation and unusually high sweat production.

Agoraphobia overlaps to a substantial degree with a second anxiety disorder known as panic disorder. In fact, an agoraphobic individual may start to experience individual instances of panic disorder (i.e., panic attacks) after he or she first develops agoraphobia. In turn, panic- and agoraphobia-related fears may make future panic attacks more likely. When agoraphobia is treated promptly with medication or change-oriented psychotherapy, most affected people recover over time. However, the condition can also lead to serious complications such as a reduced ability to function in day-to-day life, the onset of suicidal or depressed mental states and drug or alcohol abuse.

Inflammation and Heart Disease

Heart disease (also known as coronary heart disease or coronary artery disease) occurs when a cholesterol-based substance called plaque builds up on the walls of one or more arteries that feed oxygen-rich blood to the heart’s muscle tissues. Problems begin when plaque partially or fully blocks a coronary artery and reduces the amount of oxygen reaching the heart. A heart attack occurs when a fully oxygen-deprived section of heart muscle dies off and no longer functions. Other serious, potentially fatal consequences of heart disease include heart rhythm irregularities (arrhythmias) and heart failure. The American Heart Association notes that people diagnosed with heart disease commonly have signs of chronic blood vessel inflammation (swelling and redness). This inflammation may actually help set the stage for heart and blood vessel disease, although no one has definitively proven such a connection.

Women’s Gender-Specific Risks

In the study published in PLOS One, researchers from Swiss institutions, including Bern University Hospital and Lausanne University Hospital, used data gathered from 2,890 Swiss adults between the ages of 35 and 67 to explore the connection between agoraphobia, inflammation and the chances of developing heart disease. Fifty-three percent of the study participants were women. In addition to assessing the prevalence of agoraphobia, the researchers gauged inflammation levels and looked at the presence of other known indicators for heart disease such as high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and high levels of body fat.

The researchers concluded that 4.3 percent of the study participants had diagnosable past or current symptoms of agoraphobia. They also concluded that fully 81 percent of the individuals affected by the disorder were women. After comparing the agoraphobic participants to the non-agoraphobic participants, the researchers concluded that people with the condition experience a disproportionate amount of low-level inflammation that increases gradually with the passage of time. Since this type of inflammation is associated with increased chances of developing heart disease, people affected by agoraphobia may have significantly heighted heart disease risks. In turn, since women may form the large majority of agoraphobic individuals, the observed inflammation may function as a gender-specific heart disease factor.

The study’s authors note that their findings mirror earlier findings on the connection between PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and inflammation. However, they also note the need for additional research to flesh out the apparent link between agoraphobia, inflammation and heart disease in women and men.

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