Shopping, hosting, cooking, seeing family: All of the typical holiday-related activities can bring joy, but often bring psychological stress as well. New research confirms that in addition to causing the well-known side-effects of muscle tension, headaches and feelings of discomfort, stress can lead to heart attacks.
Researchers at Emory University, led by Viola Vaccarino, MD, PhD, looked at women below age 50 who had recently experienced heart attacks. They discovered that women aged 50 and younger are more likely to suffer from stress-induced ischemia, which is restricted blood flow to the heart caused by psychological stress. Fifty two percent of women in this age group are prone to this disorder, while only twenty five percent of similarly aged men are prone to it. This gives a likely explanation as to why women in this age group are at greater risk of dying after hospitalization for a heart attack, compared to men who are the same age.
To perform the study, researchers tested 49 men and 49 women who had experienced heart attacks within the previous six months. They asked the subjects to think about a realistic stressful situation, and after a short period of preparation time, speak publicly about the emotional topic. The researchers monitored the participants’ blood pressure and other vital signs during the speech. Immediately following the speech, they were given cardiac imaging to evaluate blood flow within their hearts.
The imaging showed that younger women were dramatically more likely to have reduced blood flow to the heart, to the point that the ischemia was twice as severe among the younger women. These women did not have severe coronary artery disease, meaning the arteries to their hearts were not blocked, and they did not have high rates of smoking and diabetes, which are known risk factors for heart attacks. Instead, the source of the heart attacks appeared to be their experience of psychosocial stress. According to Dr. Vaccarino, the results indicate that women are probably more vulnerable than men to the effects of mental stress on the heart.
Stress: The Key to Rapid Aging
The bad news about stress and heart attacks adds to other, previously discovered knowledge about stress and aging. In a 2010 report, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and Ronald Glaser, doctors at Ohio State University, reviewed several studies about stress and telomere length. Telomeres are stretches of DNA located at the ends of chromosomes that allow cells to divide. Telomerase is an enzyme that adds bases to the ends of telomeres, thereby preventing the telomeres from wearing down. As cells divide repeatedly, not enough telomerase remains, meaning the telomeres grow shorter, causing the cells to age.
Scientists have repeatedly shown that lower telomerase activity is associated with chronic stress, which can lead to cell aging and cell death. Much research has linked shorter telomeres with aging, age-related diseases, and death. In other words, stress physiologically leads to disease and premature aging. The Drs. Glaser also review studies showing that stress leads to a weakened immune system.
Reduce Your Holiday Stress!
The acting Surgeon General, Boris D. Lushniak, MD, MPH, recognizes the health dangers involved in holiday stress. In an article published in Public Health Reports, he notes common holiday stressors: coping with loneliness, financial constraints, and social pressure to overspend. He also notes the typical negative effects of stress, such as difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, heart disease, digestive problems, back pain, and a weakened immune system.
Dr. Lushniak’s recommendations for stress management go back to the basics. He warns Americans to devote time to self-care, such as sleeping seven to eight hours a night, and eating healthily. He also recommends regular exercise, and warns against drinking excessively. Instead of drinking to cope with stress, he endorses using meditation, guided imagery, yoga, and deep breathing relaxation techniques.
Reduce Stress, Improve Health
The Surgeon General’s advice might seem overly simplified, but it actually echoes the stress management guidelines of the Center for Disease Control. Adequate sleep, nutritious foods, and regular exercise are the fundamental steps toward healthy living. Given the propensity of stress to cause aging and heart disease, it is wise for both men and women to take every precaution to avoid the deleterious effects of holiday stress.
After heart attack, mental stress affects the heart more in women under 50. (2013). Emory News Center. Accessed November 27, 2013.
Lushniak, Boris. Holiday Season Stress Free. (2013). Public Health Reports. Accessed November 27, 2013.
Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice, et. al. Psychological stress, telomeres, and telomerase. (2010). Brain, Behavior and Immunity. Accessed November 27, 2013.