Brain’s reaction to stress key link to greater risk of heart attack

US researchers have linked heightened activity in a person’s brain to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease.

As reported by BBC News, the study focused on almost 300 people and was led by researchers at Harvard Medical School.  A link between stress and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease has long been known, but the way stress might cause heart problems has not been fully understood.  The researchers focused on the action of the amygdala area of the brain, which is activated by strong emotions like fear or pleasure, and prepares the body for ‘fight or flight’.

As outlined by BBC News, the research indicates that when stimulated, the amgydala directs bone marrow to produce additional “white blood cells, which in turn act on the arteries causing them to become inflamed”, which can then cause heart attacks among other issues.  In other words, when stressed, this part of the brain’s activity could raise a longer term risk of heart disease.

Participants in the study who reported the highest levels of stress had both higher levels of activity in their amygdala, and more artery inflammation.  The researchers were clear that more work is needed to confirm that this is how the body is working, but that the reducing stress could therefore improve heart health as well as mental wellbeing.

If you are concerned about your heart health, you can find information and support from organisations such as the British Heart Foundation.  If you are looking to reduce your stress levels, there is advice and help available from organisations such as the Mental Health Foundation.