How does stress increase your risk for stroke and heart attack?

Credit: George Hodan/public domain

Scientists have shown that anger, anxiety, and depression not only affect the functioning of the heart, but also increase the risk for heart disease.

Stroke and attacks are the end products of progressive damage to blood vessels supplying the heart and brain, a process called . Atherosclerosis progresses when there are high levels of chemicals in the body called pro-inflammatory cytokines.

It is thought that persisting stress increases the risk for atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease by evoking negative emotions that, in turn, raise the levels of pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body.

Researchers have now investigated the underlying neural circuitry of this process, and report their findings in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry.

"Drawing upon the observation that many of the same brain areas involved in emotion are also involved in sensing and regulating levels of inflammation in the body, we hypothesized that linked to negative emotions – specifically efforts to regulate negative emotions – would relate to physical signs of risk for heart disease," explained Dr. Peter Gianaros, Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and first author on the study.

To conduct the study, Gianaros and his colleagues recruited 157 healthy adult volunteers who were asked to regulate their emotional reactions to unpleasant pictures while their brain activity was measured with functional imaging. The researchers also scanned their arteries for signs of atherosclerosis to assess and measured levels of inflammation in the bloodstream, a major physiological risk factor for atherosclerosis and premature death by heart disease.

They found that individuals who show greater brain activation when regulating their also exhibit elevated blood levels of interleukin-6, one of the body's pro-inflammatory cytokines, and increased thickness of the carotid artery wall, a marker of atherosclerosis.

The inflammation levels accounted for the link between signs of atherosclerosis and brain activity patterns seen during emotion regulation. Importantly, the findings were significant even after controlling for a number of different factors, like age, gender, smoking, and other conventional heart disease risk factors.

"These new findings agree with the popular belief that emotions are connected to heart health," said Gianaros. "We think that the mechanistic basis for this connection may lie in the functioning of brain regions important for regulating both emotion and inflammation."

These findings may have implications for brain-based prevention and intervention efforts to improve heart health and protect against ."

"It is remarkable to see the links develop between , brain circuits, inflammation, and markers of poor physical health," said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. "As we identify the key mechanisms linking brain and body, we may be able to also break the cycle through which stress and depression impair physical health."

More information: The article is "An Inflammatory Pathway Links Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease Risk to Neural Activity Evoked by the Cognitive Regulation of Emotion" by Peter J. Gianaros, Anna L. Marsland, Dora C.-H. Kuan, Brittney L. Schirda, J. Richard Jennings, Lei K. Sheu, Ahmad R. Hariri, James J. Gross, and Stephen B. Manuck, DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.10.012

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Study challenges concept of 'healthy' obesity

Apr 30, 2014

Obese individuals who have no signs of cardiovascular disease show a much higher prevalence of early plaque buildup in the arteries compared to healthy normal weight individuals, according to a study published ...

Recommended for you

Brains transform remote threats into anxiety

Nov 21, 2014

Modern life can feel defined by low-level anxiety swirling through society. Continual reports about terrorism and war. A struggle to stay on top of family finances and hold onto jobs. An onslaught of news ...

Mental disorders due to permanent stress

Nov 21, 2014

Activated through permanent stress, immune cells will have a damaging effect on and cause changes to the brain. This may result in mental disorders. The effects of permanent stress on the immune system are studied by the ...

Could there be a bright side to depression?

Nov 21, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—A group of researchers studying the roots of depression has developed a test that leads them closer to the idea that depression may actually be an adaptation meant to help people cope with ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.