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Many extensive studies have been conducted to find out the correlation between stress and cardiovascular diseases. Researchers have uncovered lots of facts suggesting a close relationship between the two. Though scientists could not exactly propose the ‘cause and effect’ relationship between stress and heart diseases, there are abundant evidences to prove that continuous mental stress always has a negative impact on the cardiac health of people, and the effect is much greater in patients who already have a heart disease.
Stress, continuous or acute, can lead to heart attack
Chronic mental stress, which was previously not considered to be a direct cause for cardiovascular diseases, is now recognized as a potential risk factor. It is also found to have a major contribution to the development of other health risks.
In recent years, researchers concentrated on analyzing the effect of acute stress, or ‘acute triggers’, on heart diseases, especially on myocardial infarction that is commonly known as heart attack. The term “acute triggers” refers to events or reactions to events that occurred in the immediate moments or hours before the onset of heart attack.
How does that happen?
The mechanism by which stress leads to heart attack can be considered from two viewpoints –psychological/behavioral and physiological.
To understand how psychologically stress leads to heart attack, let us consider a person who is continuously in stress. He is unlikely to maintain a healthy diet, he tends to stay physically inactive, he is more likely to smoke.
Thus, chronic stress can cause exacerbation of some unhealthy lifestyles habits and lead to heart attack.
Not so long ago, the reaction to stress was usually described as the ‘fight or flight’ response. But these days scientists argue that the reaction to stress is not a generalized response and it differs among individuals depending on how well they cope with stress, their personality and their social conditions. Genetic factors are also found to influence the individual’s cardiovascular reaction to stress.
Physiological stress responses that lead to heart attack
When a person goes through stress, the various physiological mechanisms that take place can be put in simple words: stress adds physiological burden on the heart by increasing heart rate and blood pressure and constricting the blood vessels that nourish the heart. Over time, this may lead to heart attack.
Mental stress triggers two important neural pathways – the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary (HPA) axis. What are these pathways and how do they affect cardiac health?