We’ve all heard that stress is bad for our health, and most studies indicate that high levels of stress are associated with greater cardiovascular disease risk. In fact, stress from remote events can even impact our health. For example, one fascinating study showed that in the 30 days following the World Trade Center attacks, a total of 14 patients (11%) had ventricular arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms), compared with only 5 patients (3.8%) in the preceding 30 days. In other words, the frequency of arrhythmias increased 68% in the month following the World Trade Center attacks. But where were these patients located? Not New York City, but the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Gainseville, Florida.
However, direct empirical evidence on relationships between stress hormones (cortisol and epinephrine, or adrenaline) and cardiovascular risk factors has been inconclusive….up until now. A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism (reviewed in the NY Times) used a novel method of measuring the stress hormone cortisol to investigate the effect of stress on cardiovascular risk. Researchers measured cortisol from samples of scalp hair in older adults ages 65-85 years. Using hair samples gave researchers an indication of cortisol over a roughly 3 month period, which is a better indication of chronic elevations in stress than salivary hormone measurements. Authors found that higher levels of cortisol were associated with both cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In fact, study participants with the highest cortisol levels had about 3 times the disease risk of participants with the lowest cortisol levels– an effect similar to that observed with more traditional risk factors such as obesity and high blood pressure. The authors concluded that long-term stress impacts cardiovascular health to the same level as more widely publicized health issues such as hypertension and increased body weight. So what can one do? Relax. Keep calm. Carry on.