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January 24, 2022

Long-term anxiety may put people at higher risk of heart disease

Chronic stress can cause irregular heart rates, inflammation and reduce blood flow to the heart. New research shows it increases men's likelihood for diabetes and stroke, too

Mental Health Anxiety
Anxiety Worry Health Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

The body's fight-or-flight response is designed to protect people from dangerous situations, but it is only meant to be activated until a perceived threat has passed.

It's common knowledge that too much stress is bad for our health, but some people are more naturally prone to anxiety than others. 

Scientists are still exploring whether a lifetime of worry puts people at higher risk for certain diseases.

study published Monday in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that middle-aged men who have high levels of anxiety are at greater risk for developing heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. 

"Worry refers to our attempts at problem-solving around an issue whose future outcome is uncertain and potentially positive or negative," said Lewina Lee, the study's lead author and a psychiatry professor at Boston University School of Medicine. "Worry can be adaptive, for example, when it leads us to constructive solutions. However, worry can also be unhealthy, especially when it becomes uncontrollable and interferes with our day-to-day functioning."

How stress impacts the body

The body's fight-or-flight response is designed to protect people from dangerous situations, but it is only meant to be activated for a short duration.

According to the Mayo Clinic, perceived threats cause a surge of adrenaline that increases the body's heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars in the bloodstream and suppresses systems that are not essential in dangerous situations, like the digestive and reproductive systems.  

When the body remains on high alert for long periods of times, heightened stress hormones increase the risk for various health issues, including digestive problems, headaches, muscle tensions and pain, weight gain, sleep issues, memory and concentration impairment, anxiety, depression, increased blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

Chronic stress also can cause an irregular heart rate, inflammation and reduced blood flow to the heart, the American Heart Association reports.

Some research has suggested that high levels of stress hormones might stop insulin-producing cells in the pancreas from working properly and reduce the amount of insulin they make – putting some people at higher risk for type 2 diabetes.

People who are stressed also are more likely to engage in poor health behaviors such as smoking, binge drinking, overeating, avoiding exercise and not taking medications as prescribed – all of which can increase risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The role of neuroticism

In the latest study, researchers found the risk of cardiometabolic diseases – heart disease, stroke and diabetes – increased as men aged from their 30s into their 80s, regardless of their anxiety levels. But men with higher levels of anxiety and worry consistently had a higher likelihood of developing a cardiometabolic disease. 

The researchers focused on seven risk factors of cardiometabolic diseases: systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, triglycerides, obesity, fasting blood sugar levels and the erythrocyte sedimentation rate – a marker of inflammation.

Having six or more of these markers suggests that a person has, or is likely to develop, a cardiometabolic disease.

Higher worry levels were associated with a 10% likelihood of having at least six of these risk factors. Higher levels of neuroticism – a disposition to experience negative affects – was associated with 13% higher likelihood.

"Neuroticism is a personality trait characterized by a tendency to interpret situations as threatening, stressful and/or overwhelming," Lee said. "Individuals with high levels of neuroticism are prone to experience negative emotions – such as fear, anxiety, sadness and anger – more intensely and more frequently."

The researchers said it is unclear whether their findings can be applied to the general public because the participants were all men, and a majority were white. They also didn't have any data on whether the participants were being treated for an anxiety disorder. Future studies are needed to examine these associations among women and people from diverse racial and ethnic groups.

Looking to manage stress better?

There is no way to completely eliminate stress, but there are strategies people can use to manage it.

Relaxation techniques such as yoga, massage, deep breathing and meditation have been shown to help. So can journaling about your thoughts or the things you are grateful for in your life. Making time for enjoyable activities, giving back to the community and good sleep habits also can reduce stress. Professional counselors can help people develop healthy coping strategies.

The researchers advised anxious and worry-prone people to pay extra attention to their cardiometabolic health by having routine health check-ups, eating healthy, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight.

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