For a long time, doctors have noticed a correlation between heart attacks, strokes, and stress. Some theorized that stress might cause these issues by increasing blood pressure, but the precise mechanism was not understood. A lengthy study from Harvard Medical School has finally revealed the underlying reason that stress causes heart attacks and strokes. It turns out that the issue seems to be an excessive amount of white blood cells.
The Link Between Stress and Heart Attacks Is Finally Understood
Heart attacks and strokes are both very serious health conditions that happen when blood flow to the heart or the brain is halted. This can potentially be fatal if these important organs are deprived of oxygen-rich blood for too long. The most common cause for a heart attack or a stroke is some sort of blood flow blockage, but in some incidents, it is caused by a blood vessel breaking.
It has long been known that mental stress and anxiety increase a person’s risk for getting heart disease and strokes. Some studies have found that social stress can be just as dangerous for the heart as smoking or having high blood cholesterol. Stress may seem like a purely psychological issue, but it has a real effect on the body.
It turns out that stress can greatly increase both the chance of clots or a broken blood vessel. The brain responds to stress just like it would respond to a human being in danger, so the body starts increasing levels of cortisol and adrenaline which cause blood pressure to skyrocket. In a dangerous situation, that would help a human to fight or flee from danger, but chronically high blood pressure levels in normal life weaken blood vessels and increase the chance of a broken vessel.
The new Harvard study shows that stress does not just increase the risk of rare broken blood vessels. It can also increase the risk of blood clots that most commonly cause heart attacks or strokes. The researchers discovered this by tracking the brain activity, bone marrow activity, artery inflammation, and spleen activity of 293 patients for about four years. The data gathered was then carefully processed in order to rule out mere correlations and get to the actual causal links.
Researchers found that stress was handled by a part of the brain called the amygdala. When stress is encountered, the amygdala tells a person’s bone marrow to produce more white blood cells so that the body will be prepared to fight off infections or repair damage. Chronic stress may cause the body to overproduce white blood cells, and these extra cells can bind together into plaques and clots in the blood vessels.
The study was able to show this because 22 out of the 293 patients had cardiovascular events like heart attack, strokes, or heart failure. Those with higher amygdala activity had an increase in bone marrow activity that lead to an increase in blood vessel inflammation, and in many patients, this resulted in heart problems. Dr. Ilze Bot cautions,
these clinical data establish a connection between stress and cardiovascular disease, thus identifying chronic stress as a true risk factor for acute cardiovascular syndromes.
New Discovery Leads to Better Heart Attack Prevention
This data may help doctors to find ways to prevent heart attacks and strokes. It is sometimes impossible for people to avoid stress in the modern world, but they may be able to avoid the heightened immune response that can lead to heart attacks. Future medical developments could create medicines or stress relief therapies that lower amygdala responses to stress. Until then, it is wise to avoid stress whenever possible to protect your heart.
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