Stress has been linked with a number of harmful effects on physical and mental health, one of the most concerning being its link to an increased risk of heart disease. According to a new study, a person's sex may play an important role in how stress affects his or her heart.
Recent research from the Duke Heart Center, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, examined 254 men and 56 women with stable heart disease. The study found that the sexes have different cardiovascular and psychological reactions to mental stress.
Participants were asked to undergo three stress-inducing tasks: an anger recall test, a math test and a mirror tracing test. During each task and during rest periods between tasks, researchers examined changes in the heart with echocardiography, blood samples and by measuring blood pressure and heart rate.
The researchers found that men had more changes in blood pressure and heart rate in response to mental stress than women did. More women, meanwhile, experienced decreased blood flow to the heart and increased platelet formation, the beginning of blood clots. In terms of the psychological effects, women experienced a greater increase in negative emotions and a greater drop in positive emotions than men.
"The relationship between mental stress and cardiovascular disease is well known," the study's lead author, Zainab Samad, M.D., MHS, assistant professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center, said in a statement. "This study revealed that mental stress affects the cardiovascular health of men and women differently. We need to recognize this difference when evaluating and treating patients for cardiovascular disease."
The study's conclusions echo other recent findings that young women who had recently suffered a heart attack were more likely than men of the same age who had suffered a heart attack to experience inadequate blood flow to the heart in response to emotional stress.