Impact of Stress on Heart Disease Risks

More on the debate of stress and heart disease risks. While stress is an unavoidable part of life, your doctor will tell you that if left unmanaged, it can contribute to physical problems. A new study finds that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the hair shaft may be the strongest predictor of who might have a heart attack.

Until the current work appearing in the journal Stress, there had been no direct evidence of a link between chronic stress and heart disease, though many had long suspected such a tie.

Chronic high levels of cortisol are known to have negative impacts on our health – increases in blood pressure, blood sugar, body fat and blood clotting, all risks for heart attack. Heart attacks are a leading killer of men and women in the United States. Each year almost 1.1 million people have a heart attack, almost half die. We are fortunate that medical advances have brought effective treatments that save lives and prevent life changing disabilities.

Earlier research has measured levels of cortisol in blood, urine and saliva, but these only give a snapshot of stress at the moment. Cortisol in the hair shaft can provide a long-term assessment of stress levels. Hair is known to grow about 1 centimeter a month, meaning that a 3-centimeter sample is a way to gauge stress over a three-month period.

In the most recent work, hair cortisol levels were a more important predictor of heart attack risk than other known risk factors like high blood pressure, smoking and high cholesterol. Experts understood that stress was a factor, but no one expected it to be the strongest of all factors according to study lead Stan VanUum, MD, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

The team compared 3-centimeter hair strands from 56 subjects who were hospitalized after a heart attack to hair strands from men who were in the hospital for other reasons. The men who had heart attacks had higher levels of cortisol in their hair shafts than those who didn’t have heart attacks. These findings held up even after the team controlled for other known risks.

The heart attack patients also had higher levels of low-density lipoprotein (bad) cholesterol levels and higher body mass indexes than those who didn’t have a heart attack. These men had lower levels of high-density lipoprotein (good) cholesterol.

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How Hair can Reveal Heart Risk… Continued…

While some risks for heart disease can be changed… blood pressure and cholesterol for example, there are other factors like age and gender that you can do nothing to change. No one is sure that cortisol is a factor that can be altered. Stress reduction measures might help, but if they don’t, medicine will have identified a population that can benefit from more aggressive treatment of other modifiable risk factors.

Don’t expect a hair test to be done in your doctor’s office anytime soon. Researchers will need to look at the effects in women, and if techniques like stress management or cognitive behavior therapy affect the levels of cortisol in the hair shaft.

In the meantime to reduce your heart disease risks, it’s a good idea to take steps to keep your stress under control. Work to change the things you can and let go of anger and frustration over the things you can’t change.