If your New Year's resolution was to stress less, we have an important reason as to why you should follow through. Stress has long been known to influence heart health, but a recent study provides a glimpse into just how much.
A team of cardiologists at Harvard University and Massachusetts General used brain imaging techniques to find that people with more active amygdalas have a higher risk of heart attack or stroke.
What is the amygdala?
The amygdala is considered the fear center of the brain. It’s a small, almond-shaped region that is responsible for detecting fear and other forms of stress. It plays an important role in processing emotions and making decisions. A healthy amygdala can help prevent stress however an overactive amygdala due to chronic stress or other factors can amplify the stress response.
About the study:
The results came from a large-scale longitudinal study, analyzing 293 people over the age of 30 without heart problems for four years. All patients received PET and CT scans for cancer screenings (all unrelated to heart disease), during which they had their brains, arteries, bone marrow, and spleen scanned. Through monitoring the patients from 2005-2008, researchers found that 22 participants experienced serious cardiac events. As per the initial brain scans, those with more active amygdalas were more likely to suffer from a heart event. The team also found a potential biological pathway that links amygdalar activity to cardiovascular disease — inflammation and more activity in the bone marrow.
In a sub study of the group, there were a few people who had PTSD and were not being screened for cancer. These individuals also had more inflammation in the blood and arteries and a high level of activity in the amygdala.
Dr. Jennifer Haythe, co-director of the Women's Center for Cardiovascular Health at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, said in a statement:
"While we've known for years that stress plays a role in cardiovascular disease, it's been difficult to quantify 'stress,' a relatively subjective feeling, for research purposes. [This study] highlights the interplay between the brain and the heart — a relationship we know exists, but the details of which remain mysterious."
When advising patients on heart attack prevention, physical activity, diet and smoking are typically highlighted. However, with these new findings, stress management could be considered as a preventive health measure as well.
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