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Stress Is A Killer, Linked To Heart Attacks, Strokes

Update Date: Jan 13, 2017 09:00 AM EST

Stress is a silent killer as a new study shows how it might cause heart attacks and stroke.

A new study using brain scan shows how stress can cause heart attacks. The findings point to the amygdala, the "fear" center in the brain. Heightened activity in the in this part of the brain is linked with a greater risk of heart disease and stroke.

Published in the journal the Lancet, people whose amygdalas seemed more active during brain scans were more likely to suffer from a heart attack, stroke or other serious heart events over the next three to four years.

"The study produced several novel findings. It showed, for the first time in animal models or humans, the part of the brain -- the amygdala -- that links to the risk of subsequent cardiovascular disease," Dr. Ahmed Tawakol, co-director of the cardiac PET/CT program at Massachusetts General Hospital, told CNN.

"The amygdala is a critical component of the brain's stress network and becomes metabolically active during times of stress," he added.

What They Found

For the study, the researchers observed 293 patients undergoing PET and CT scans unrelated to heart disease. Most of them are getting the scans for cancer screening. All of the participants had their brains, bone marrow, arteries and spleen scanned.

Over the next three to four years, the team watched to see who suffered heart attacks, strokes and other heart diseases. Of the 293 patients, a total of 22 patients did. When the researchers looked at the patients' brain scans, those whose amygdalas were more active were more likely to suffer from a heart event.

"Our results provide a unique insight into how stress may lead to cardiovascular disease. This raises the possibility that reducing stress could produce benefits that extend beyond an improved sense of psychological wellbeing," Dr. Tawakol said in a press release by Science Daily.

"Eventually, chronic stress could be treated as an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which is routinely screened for and effectively managed like other major cardiovascular disease risk factors," he added.

Cardiovascular Disease Is The Number One Killer Worldwide

The study could shed light on ways to reduce stress-related cardiovascular diseases. Cardiovascular diseases (CVD), which are a class of conditions involving the heart or blood vessels, are the leading causes of death among both men and women across the globe, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports. In fact, the report shows that more people die each year from CVDs than from any other cause.

About 17.5 million people died from CVD in 2012, representing 31 percent of all deaths worldwide. Most cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by addressing behavioral risk factors like tobacco use, eating an unhealthy diet, obesity, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol. Now, the new study shows that even stress could lead to CVDs.

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