How stressed do you think you are? The answer could affect the health of your heart, a new review of studies suggests.
The research, published in the American Journal of Cardiology, shows that people who believe that they are stressed have a higher risk of developing or dying from coronary heart disease, which is when the blood vessels that lead to the heart become narrowed by plaque buildup.
The findings are "the most precise estimate of that relationship [between perceived stress and heart risks], and it gives credence to the widely held belief that general stress is related to heart health," study researcher Donald Edmondson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, said in a statement.
The researchers found that being highly stressed is linked with other well-known factors known to also raise heart risks -- the same, in fact, as an increase in cholesterol levels of 50 milligrams per deciliter of blood, or smoking five cigarettes daily.
The findings are based on six studies, which included people ages 43 to 74. In all the studies, the participants were asked about their perceived stress (questions such as "How stressed do you feel? or "How often are you stressed?). The participants were followed for 14 years, on average, and their heart attacks and/or deaths from coronary heart disease were recorded.
Researchers found that people who scored their stress levels as high had a 27 percent higher risk of being diagnosed or hospitalized with coronary heart disease, or dying from coronary heart disease. The link between stress and heart risks was stronger among the older people in the study than the younger people.
"The key takeaway is that how people feel is important for their heart health, so anything they can do to reduce stress may improve their heart health in the future," study researcher Dr. Safiya Richardson, M.D., who worked on the study while at Columbia, said in a statement.
Similarly, a study published back in September in The Lancet showed that people who work in high-stress, demanding jobs face a 23 percent higher risk of heart attack than their not-so-stressed peers. And a study from Brigham and Women's Hospital researchers showed that women with stressful jobs may actually have a 70 percent higher risk of heart attack, and a 40 percent higher risk of conditions like stroke, than less-stressed women.
And another study, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, shows that it's not just the stress, but how you react to it, that could have a health impact down the road. Specifically, researchers found that people who were more stressed out and anxious about the stresses of everyday life were more likely to have chronic health conditions (such as heart problems, or arthritis) 10 years later, compared with people who viewed things through a more relaxed lens.
So what's a person to do to decrease stress? Well, smiling could help, for one. For some other natural stress-relievers, click through the slideshow: