Stress has long been linked to cardiovascular problems, but exactly how has remained somewhat of a mystery. One suggestion has been that stress increases the chance a person will reach for a way to relieve it – such as in the form of smoking or drinking – and that these risk factors are responsible for the link. But now researchers think they may have found a more direct connection between stress and cardiovascular disease.
They say that it all hinges on a part of the brain known as the amygdala. The research, published in The Lancet, looked at two different studies. One of these followed close to 300 people over four years, scanning their brains as well as their bone marrow, spleen, and arteries. They found that those patients who then went on to develop cardiovascular disease were also those who had the most activity in the amygdala.
A second smaller study found that those participants with the highest levels of stress also had the highest levels of activity in this same region of the brain. Not only that, but they also have higher levels of inflammation in their blood and arteries. While not conclusive, the researchers state that this could be a link to explain how excessive stress can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease.
They reason that the increase in activity of the amygdala, which is the region of the brain involved in fear and pleasure, is sending signals to the bone marrow to produce more white blood cells. As the level of white blood cells increases, it in turn causes the arteries to become inflamed, and thus can lead to cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes.
“Eventually, chronic stress could be treated as an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which is routinely screened for and effectively managed like other major cardiovascular disease risk factors,” Dr Ahmed Tawakol, who led the study, told BBC News. “This raises the possibility that reducing stress could produce benefits that extend beyond an improved sense of psychological wellbeing.”
More research is needed to fully corroborate what this study has found, but the consequences could be important. It means that stress could now be considered in the same group as other risk factors like smoking or drinking. If that were the case, the researchers argue, than doctors should recommend ways to reduce stress in patients who are suffering from it or who may be particularly vulnerable.