Are Women’s Hearts More Affected By Stress?

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We all know that heart disease is no small matter. It’s the number one killer of adults in many countries, and for most people, it is common knowledge that diet can influence one’s likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease at some point in their lifetime. But what about the role of stress? Most people are also aware that chronic stress can increase blood pressure and raise the risk of cardiovascular problems down the road. But too often, general health recommendations fail to take into account the role that gender plays in one’s risk for disease. Some new evidence suggests that women are more susceptible to stress-induced heart problems than men. Is this the case? And if so, what can women do about it?


Women’s Hearts and Stress

A recent report by HealthDay News claimed that women were significantly more vulnerable to heart problems caused by stress than men. The report cited a study carried out at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta, Georgia. In this study, researchers examined the hearts and blood vessels of 678 participants with stable, preexisting heart disease to see if there was any correlation between “mental stress” and a reduction in cardiovascular health. They were especially interested to see if there were increases or decreases in risk based on demographic data such as the participant’s sex.

The stress stimulus the researchers chose for this study was a brief public speaking engagement, an activity that many people would find intimidating. While it was to be expected that the researchers would find some linkage between public speaking and increased stress, their findings were still surprising.

They found that women with preexisting heart disease who participated in the study were significantly more likely to develop myocardial ischemia in response to stress than male participants with heart disease. This term refers to a condition where the blood vessels constrict and reduce the flow of blood to the heart. Such constrictions can increase the risk of experiencing a heart attack, as well as other forms of cardiovascular problems.

Around 8 percent of male participants experienced myocardial ischemia during the course of the study, compared to approximately one third of female participants. This means that women were 4 times as likely to experience cardiovascular problems as a response to stress than men— a significant difference.


What are the takeaways from this study?

Myocardial ischemia is one of those “silent” conditions that can lead to potentially serious heart problems. Most people with myocardial ischemia probably don’t know that they have this issue with their blood vessels. So, what steps can people, especially women, take to reduce their risk of heart problems caused by stress?

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Regular exercise is one the best places to start. So many problems are linked to a sedentary lifestyle. Our bodies are designed to move, and when we’re sitting down all the time, whether for work or just relaxing, we are doing something unnatural even though it might not feel that way. It has already been well established that exercise can reduce blood pressure and improve cardiovascular endurance. But exercise is also especially good for reducing constriction in blood vessels because it actually causes the opposite to happen: When you are engaged in cardio or resistance training such as running or lifting weights, your blood vessels are actually dilating in order to better facilitate the flow of blood to your muscles.


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But of course, myocardial ischemia is really a symptom rather than the cause of the issue. The real culprit here is stress. Women, especially as they get older, should take steps to do what they can to reduce stress in their lives, and find healthy ways to respond to it. Consider taking up yoga or mediation because these are proven systems for reducing the mental physiological symptoms of stress which have stood the test of time. It’s also important to clearly identify issues, people and behaviors which may be contributing to the stress.

Everyone’s situation is different, but following these general guidelines can help women to reduce their risk of stress-induced heart disease.