Stressful Experiences Put Women With Heart Disease at Extreme Risk
Coronary Heart Disease, Stress Do Not Mix
People with coronary heart disease undergo a buildup of plaque inside the arteries that carry oxygen-enriched blood to the heart. Over time, this can lead to blockages that are likely to cause a heart attack. Eventually oxygen-deprived heart muscles may weaken to the point that heart failure is the inevitable result. Coronary heart disease is the most common form of heart disease in the United States and is the leading cause of death for Americans of both genders.
The researchers responsible for this new study recruited 534 men and women of all ages who had been diagnosed with this dangerous condition to take part in their monitoring program. At the beginning, they used nuclear imaging technology to measure the flow of blood to participants’ hearts, establishing a baseline figure before moving on to the actual experiment.
Afterward, each volunteer was asked to talk in detail about a stressful event that had occurred at some point in their lives. They were encouraged to recall these memories as if the event were happening all over again; and while they were doing so the researchers again measured the rate of blood flow to their hearts to see what changes would occur.
While performing this stress-inducing task, all of the participants experienced a reduction in coronary blood flow, which was expected. But for study subjects below the age of 65, this decrease in volume was more pronounced in women than in men—and the differences were not slight. Women 55 and under saw reductions in blood flow that were three times greater than men in the same age group, while women aged 55 to 64 experienced twice the reduction.
This gender difference disappeared once men and women reached the traditional age of retirement. But the researchers were shocked to discover how elevated the risk of heart dysfunction appeared to be for younger women exposed to stressful memories.
Calculating the Risks: A Losing Equation for All
The primary risk factors for coronary heart disease are a poor cholesterol balance (too much LDL and not enough HDL), high blood pressure, family history, diabetes, smoking, obesity, lack of exercise and nutritionally-deficient diets. On balance, men with coronary heart disease will mark positive for more of these risk factors than women. However, women with the disease suffer more complications and pass away more often from heart attack or heart failure than men of the same age.
This fact has always presented medical authorities with a bit of a conundrum since it contradicted expectations. But the researchers involved in this new study suspect vulnerability to emotional upset may be the powerful hidden factor that puts women in the danger zone. As stated by study co-author Dr. Viola Vaccarino from Emory University’s School of Public Health, "Women who develop heart disease at a younger age make up a special high-risk group because they are disproportionally vulnerable to emotional stress.”
Fortunately most of the risk factors for coronary heart disease are related to voluntary behaviors and are therefore amenable to intervention. People who have high triggers for stress can usually reduce their reactivity with the help of psychological therapy, exercise, dietary adjustments, mind-body techniques like yoga, meditation or biofeedback and lifestyle alterations that reduce exposure to strong stressors.
Emotional Trauma Is Bad for the Heart
It is of course vitally important for people victimized by emotional trauma to seek professional help so they can reconcile the past and learn to break the tenacious hold terrible memories have gained over their lives. This is necessary in every case, but perhaps more than any other group, women with coronary heart disease are putting themselves at grave risk if they choose to leave past trauma unaddressed.
Healing regimens for serious medical disorders must be comprehensive if they are to make a decisive difference. Consequently, when coronary heart disease is present, any previous or ongoing experiences that provoke stress should be acknowledged and resolved. If they are not and a woman is left to suffer through chronic emotional discomfort in silence, the prognosis for full recovery from this life-threatening condition will not be promising.