Women More Susceptible To Heart Problems Due To Stress

Stress is known to be bad for your health; if you're a woman, it might even break your heart. According to new research just presented at the 2012 Experimental Biology Conference in San Diego, a woman's heart may be more likely to suffer from stress-related cardiac problems than a man's.

While both sexes in the study experienced a rise in blood pressure and heart rate while under stress, blood flow to women's hearts did not increase, whereas with men, it did. That blood flow, explained Chester Ray, Ph.D of Penn State's College of Medicine, is intended to enable the heart to work harder.

The findings, he added, might help explain why women dealing with extreme emotional trauma, such as the death of a spouse, experience more heart problems than men.

Women's vs. Men's Hearts: A Case Study

The small study, conducted on nine men and eight women mostly in their 20's, entailed participants completing a series of math problems under pressure. Subjects were told to subtract seven from a random number during three-minute tests. They were told their correct answers were wrong. Testers further simulated stress by rushing the participants.

Heart rate, blood pressure and blood flow were measured at rest, during the three-minute math exercises, and afterword to assess possible cardiac differences in response to stress among men and women. A special ultrasound was used to evaluate blood flow rates to the heart muscle.

At rest, the men's and women's heart rates were relatively equal. Under stress, however, women did not experience a rise in blood flow to their hearts like the men did.

What Does It Mean For Women's Heart Health?

Though small, the study adds evidence to the known fact that stress is harmful to one's health. Additionally, it suggests that severe mental distress can affect women's hearts in unique ways not felt by men.

As noted by William O'Neill, a physician not involved in the study, the results may help understand “broken heart syndrome" in women; a condition characterized by a seemingly massive heart attack where no blockage is evident.

Experts recommend that women communicate with their health care providers if suffering from extremely stressful situations. They also urge physicians to pay attention to stress overall, particularly to distressed women's hearts, as they may be especially vulnerable.

Future Outlook

The study is considered preliminary until further research and the peer-review process are conducted to validate the findings. Additional research is recommended to shed light on the phenomena behind the difference of men and women's heart responses to stress. It may result in future development of specific prevention campaigns and treatment measures targeting women at risk for heart disease.

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