Women's Stress Tied to Deadly Heart Problems

Thursday, 13 Mar 2014 03:48 PM

By Nick Tate

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Stress has been found to affect the nervous system in ways that can trigger life-threatening heart problems in women, a new study has found.

Emotional stressors, such as those that cause angry outbursts, can change a woman's heart rate and lead to a type of coronary artery dysfunction that occurs more frequently in women than men, according to researchers at the Barbra Streisand Women's Heart Center at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute.

In findings presented at the American Psychosomatic Society's annual meeting in San Francisco, the medical investigators said such triggering events may explain why many women's heart problems go undetected by doctors at hospitals and clinics, Medical Xpress reports.

"Women who go to emergency rooms and cardiologists because they have chest pain often are told that their arteries are clear and their hearts are fine. But the reality is that women's coronary artery disease tends to be different from men's," said C. Noel Bairey Merz, M.D., a professor of medicine and medical director of the Barbra Streisand Women's Heart Center.

In men with coronary artery disease, the large arteries feeding the heart tend to become clogged by plaque, and these blockages are evident on coronary angiograms, Dr. Bairey Mertz explained. But women may have no evidence of arterial obstruction, even though they experience chest pain related to lack of oxygen to the heart.

"In women, the large arteries may remain clear but the smaller branches that connect to the even-smaller capillaries lose their ability to widen," she said. "Whether the large arteries are blocked or the small arterioles don't function correctly, the result is the same — the heart becomes starved for oxygen."

Bairey Merz heads up the Women's Ischemic Syndrome Evaluation study — sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute — which has brought to light many gender-related differences in heart disease.

For the latest study, researchers tracked 16 women diagnosed with a condition known as coronary microvascular dysfunction, along with eight others who did not have the condition. The women's heart rate and blood pressure were measured at rest and when they were subjected to several types of stress using standardized tests for anger, performing mental arithmetic, and having a cold pack placed on the forehead.

Both groups responded in the same way to the stressors — except when dealing with the emotional stress of anger. In women with microvascular dysfunction, emotional stress increased sympathetic nerve stimulation — associated with a quickened heart rate — and decreased parasympathetic nerve activity, which relaxes and slows heart rate.

The results indicate emotional stress may trigger microvascular dysfunction and lead to heart attacks and other cardiac problems in women.

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