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Study Uncovers how Stress can Kill

Update Date: Jun 25, 2014 01:40 PM EDT

According to BetterHelp, elevated stress levels can be detrimental to one's overall wellbeing. Even though researchers have known that too much stress is bad, they have not uncovered how stress affects the body. In a new study, researchers reportedly found how stress can raise people's risk of heart attack and death.

For this study, the researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School recruited 29 medical employees who worked at a hospital's intensive care unit where stress levels can get very high. The researchers examined the link between the participants' stress levels after working for one week and their white blood cell counts. The team discovered that the white blood cell counts were a lot higher when the workers were on duty as opposed to being off duty. The excess white blood cells contribute to greater plaque buildup in people with atherosclerosis.

"White blood cells are important to fight infection and healing, but if you have too many of them, or they are in the wrong place, they can be harmful," Matthias Nahrendorf of the Harvard Medical School, and co-author of the study told the AFP reported by Yahoo News.

After identifying differences in cell counts, the team conducted an experiment on mice models. The team placed mice under highly stressful environments, such as isolation and cage tilting, until the mice's white blood cell counts became elevated. The researchers discovered that the higher cell counts were tied to the development of plaque inflammation in the arteries as well.

"Here, they [the cells] release enzymes that soften the connective tissue and lead to disruption of the plaque," said Nahrendorf. "This is the typical cause of myocardial infarction [heart attack] and stroke."

The findings suggest that people dealing with chronic stress should seek help in maintaining their levels. The study, "Chronic variable stress activates hematopoietic stem cells," was published in Nature Medicine.

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