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High stress levels increase heart attack risk, here’s what you can do to prevent it

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High stress levels can increase blood pressure and may put healthy individuals at a higher risk of developing hypertension within the next decade, a new study finds.

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According to research published in Hypertension, an American Heart Association journal, on Monday, adults with regular blood pressure levels and high levels of stress hormones were more susceptible to develop high blood pressure and experience cardiovascular problems compared to those who had lower stress hormone levels.

Cumulative exposure to daily stressors or traumatic stress can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

“The stress hormone norepinephrine, epinephrine, dopamine and cortisol can increase with stress from life events, work, relationships, finances, and more,” study author Kosuke Inoue, MD, PhD, assistant professor of social epidemiology at Japan’s Kyoto University said.

“And we confirmed that stress is a key factor contributing to the risk of hypertension and cardiovascular events,” Inoue, who is also affiliated with the department of epidemiology at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California Los Angeles, said.

A study published earlier this year, titled ‘Psychological Health, Well-Being, and the Mind-Heart-Body Connection,’ a new American Heart Association (AHA) Scientific Statement, found that there was a connection between the mind and the body, suggesting that a person’s mind can positively or negatively affect cardiovascular health, risk factors and events as well as cardiovascular prognosis over time.

“Previous research focused on the relationship between stress hormone levels and hypertension or cardiovascular events in patients with existing hypertension. However, studies looking at adults without hypertension were lacking,” said Inoue, adding that it was important to “examine the impact of stress on adults in the general population because it provides new information about whether routine measurement of stress hormones needs to be considered to prevent hypertension and CVD events.”

Younger people at greater risk

The research involved 412 multiracial adults between the ages of 48 and 87 years old, half of whom were female. The study’s participants had normal blood pressure levels.

The team measured stress hormone levels in urine at several points between 2005 and 2018.

They focused on testing for three hormones: norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine, all of which regulate the automatic nervous system and control heart rate, blood pressure and breathing.

The doubling of cortisol levels (but not epinephrine, dopamine or norepinephrine) was found to be associated with a cardiovascular event risk rate of 90 percent, according to the new study.

When combined levels of all four stress hormones doubled, the risk of developing high blood pressure levels increased between 21 and 31 percent and this effect was more pronounced in younger people, below the age of 60.

“In this context, our findings generate a hypothesis that stress hormones play a critical role in the pathogenesis of hypertension among the younger population,” the researchers wrote.

Mind, heart and body are interconnected

Cardiologist and professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston Dr. Glen Levine, who was not involved in the study, told CNN that this was yet another study that illustrated the obvious link between the mind a person’s heart health.

“Stress, depression, frustration, anger and a negative outlook on life not only make us unhappy people but negatively impact our health and longevity,” said Levine.

Levine also chaired the AHA’s scientific statement on the connection between heart disease and mental health. He said that whilst developing the statement, he (along with the team) analyzed available data on the matter and “concluded that negative psychological health factors such as stress were clearly associated with many cardiovascular risk factors.”

He added that because the mind, heart and body are interconnected and interdependent, people can change their psychological outlook on life and be more positive to improve heart health.

Fixing your mindset

“You can decide to change your mindset about that stressful situation or set boundaries – just by being aware you can keep that stress from becoming toxic to you,” stress-management expert Dr. Cynthia Ackrill told CNN.

“We shouldn’t discount our ability to have a role in our well-being,” she added.

Prevention: What else can you do?

Without a urine test, it can be difficult to gauge what our cortisol levels are, said Levine, suggesting that there are “ways we can learn to self-reflect on whether we may have some negative psychological factors, particularly things like stress.”

“If we do recognize that we tend to be frequently stressed, frustrated or angered, then it’s helpful to ponder what exactly are the things that lead us to become stressed,” he added.

“Once we do that, we can really thoughtfully sit down and decide, is it worthwhile to allow these things to lead me to become stressed or frustrated?”

Understanding our triggers can allow you to avoid these adverse automatic immune responses before they affect the circulatory system, Ackrill said.

“The mechanism of stress is that we get worked up over something so our sympathetic nervous system revs everything up. We need our heart pumping fast to keep our blood pressure up so that we’ve got good circulation and we can get away from the danger,” Ackrill explained.

Intervening earlier, such as when your stress response is about to happen, with deep breathing exercises or other “relaxation response[s]” can help, she said, allowing your executive brain to react and give you options on how to handle a stressful situation.

“Often we let our mind quickly react to something before we’ve truly had time to allow our higher levels of cognitive functioning, our prefrontal cortex, to weigh in,” said Levine.

“We want to pause, ponder and digest this, and take a couple seconds to decide what is the most skillful way to react.”

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