As a Board-Certified Specialist in Cardiovascular & Pulmonary Physical Therapy, I typically see patients after they have had surgery to repair obstructed vessels, faulty valves, or, in advanced cases, after placement of heart assistive devices or transplant. These are folks who are at the end stages of their heart disease. My role is to assist them to function optimally after surgery — teaching them the basics of how to safely maneuver in/out of bed after a painful chest incision, learn how to walk again, prescribe an exercise program, and impart strategies on preventing further heart disease through maintaining a healthy lifestyle. What is the one strategy that will now be topping my list? Learning to manage stress levels.
A new study published last week in The Lancet now suggests a direct link between stress and heart disease risk — and it doesn’t start in the heart, but rather the brain. Shelby Lorman brought this to our attention in her post a few days ago. The study found that high stress levels activated an area in our brain known as the amygdala — the area that processes emotions. Researchers found that activity in the amygdala led to increased metabolic activity in the bone marrow (the area of our body responsible for producing white blood cells), producing inflammation in the arteries. The participants in the study that had high amygdalar activities showed greater risk of cardiovascular events.
For years, scientists have presumed an indirect link between stress and heart disease. From a physiologic standpoint, chronic stress produces unhealthy levels of adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) in the blood, leading to elevated heart rate and blood pressure, and the potential for a heart attack or stroke. Many of the known behaviors associated with risk factors of heart disease, such as poor diet, obesity (due to excess eating, lack of sleep and/or exercise), alcoholism, and smoking may all be exacerbated when we’re stressed.
According to the CDC, cardiovascular disease is the leading global cause of death, accounting for 17.3 million deaths per year, expected to grow to an astounding 23.6 million by 2030. Although some risk factors of heart disease are not modifiable — such as congenital defects, family history, ethnicity, or age — STRESS is something that we can learn to control. Here are a few science-backed strategies that can keep your stress down and your heart healthy.
The benefits of reducing stress in our lives can extend far beyond psychological and physical well-being. Our stress levels may soon become an important screening tool for determining whether our hearts and our minds stay healthy.
Originally published at medium.com