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Mental Stress Affects Men and Women’s Heart Health Differently

Update Date: Oct 13, 2014 10:04 AM EDT

Studies that factor in the sex of the participants can reveal gender-based differences associated with health risks. In a new study, a research team examined the effects of mental stress and discovered that it had a different impact on the heart health of men and women. Men and women also had different psychological reactions to mental stress.

"The relationship between mental stress and cardiovascular disease is well known," said the study lead author Zainab Samad, M.D., M.H.S., assistant professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina. "This study revealed that mental stress affects the cardiovascular health of men and women differently. We need to recognize this difference when evaluating and treating patients for cardiovascular disease."

For this study, the researchers recruited 254 male and 56 female participants who were being treated for heart disease. The sample was taken form the REMIT study that was focused on the effects of treating heart disease caused by mental stress with the medication, escitalopram.

The participants completed three mentally stressful assignments, which were a mental arithmetic test, a mirror tracing test and an anger recall test. They also underwent a treadmill exercise test. In between these tests, the researchers collected blood samples and tracked any changes in the participants' heart by using an echocardiography. They also collected data on the participants' blood pressure and heart rate.

The researchers discovered that in male participants, mental stress affected blood pressure and heart rate. In female participants, however, mental stress had a greater impact on the blood flow to the heart. Women were more likely to suffer from myocardial ischemia, which is a condition characterized by lower blood flow to the heart caused by a partial or complete blockage in the coronary arteries. The team added that women also had more negative emotions than men.

"At this point, further studies are needed to test the association of sex differences in the heart's responses to mental stress and long term outcomes," Samad said according to the press release. "This study also underscores the inadequacy of available risk prediction tools, which currently fail to measure an entire facet of risk, i.e. the impact of negative physiological responses to psychological stress in both sexes, and especially so among women."

The study was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

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