Mental Stress Worsens Heart Disease in Women
Women and Heart Disease
Heart disease is also known as coronary heart disease or coronary artery disease. It occurs when a cholesterol-based substance called plaque accumulates inside one or more of the arteries that supply blood to the heart and subsequently reduces the amount of blood that can reach this vital organ. People affected by reduced coronary blood flow have substantially increased risks of experiencing a heart attack, heartbeat irregularities and heart failure (an inability to pump sufficient amounts of blood to the body).
Like men, women have risks for heart disease that include eating a high-cholesterol diet, carrying enough weight to qualify as obese or morbidly obese and having hypertension. However, some of the known universal risk factors for heart disease impact women significantly more severely than they impact men. Examples of these factors include the presence of the diabetes, cigarette use and the presence of metabolic syndrome, a collection of symptoms that make serious heart problems more likely to occur. In addition, women have gender-specific risks for heart disease that include having diabetes or hypertension while pregnant and experiencing a natural decline in estrogen levels after transitioning through menopause.
Stress is our built-in mental and physical reaction to circumstances that either pose some form of threat to security or well-being or seem to pose some form of threat to security or well-being. Ideally, this reaction only occurs occasionally and has a limited negative impact on a person’s state of mind. However, in the modern world, potential sources of stress abound, and some people experience harmful reactions to stress exposure on a fairly regular basis. For any given person, possible stress sources include relatively minor daily pressures and less frequent, more severe situations such as divorce, job loss or exposure to natural disasters, sexual assaults or other traumatic events. In addition to increasing the odds of developing significant mental health problems, sustained stress exposure can lead to a substantial decline in various aspects of physical health.
Women’s Mental Stress and Existing Heart Disease
In the study presented in late 2014 to the American Heart Association, the Emory University researchers conducted mental and physical stress tests on a group of 534 men and women already affected by heart disease. All of these men and women had stable forms of heart disease and were not currently experiencing any rapid declines in their health status. While administering the tests, the researchers recorded aspects of each participant’s heart function that included blood pressure levels, average heart rate and the amount of blood reaching the heart through the coronary arteries.
After reviewing the results of the testing, the researchers concluded that men and women with heart disease experience roughly equal decreases in coronary blood flow when exposed to the stress of physical exercise. However, they also concluded that, when exposed to mental stress, women under the age of 65 with existing heart disease experience a much larger drop in coronary blood flow than their male counterparts. The highest rate of blood flow reduction relative to men (200 percent) occurs in women 55 or younger. Women between the ages of 56 and 64 experience a 100 percent larger drop in coronary blood flow than men when exposed to substantial mental stress.
The study’s authors believe that several largely gender-specific sources of stress may contribute to the disproportionately negative outcomes for women already affected by heart disease. These sources include traditional roles for women in the care of children, as well as traditional roles for women in the care of aging parents and in the maintenance of marriages. In addition, they believe that women may experience unusually severe changes in normal coronary artery function when exposed to mentally stressful situations.