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Dr. Ben Morrison, St. Luke's Hospital

Younger women with heart disease hit especially hard by stress

Stress affects us at any age. Whether it's related to your health, relationships, emotional issues, life changes, finances or your job, anxiety has a way of creeping into our lives at one time or another.

All stress is not bad. At times, it can have beneficial effects such as motivating us to respond to intense situations in a positive way. Stress left unchecked, however, can cause many health issues including headaches, chest pain, palpitations, depression, decreased concentration, irritability, fatigue, weight loss or gain and other troubling symptoms.

Stress can affect women and men differently, partly because women often see themselves as the caretakers not only of themselves but of others, too. According to the American Psychological Association, women are more likely than men to report having increased stress levels.

A recent study presented at an American Heart Association conference shows that young women (55 and younger) with heart disease have three times less blood flow to the heart than men when experiencing psychological stress.

In this study, psychological stress was tested by instructing the participants to give a speech to a group of people about an event in their lives they found difficult. Interestingly, there was no difference in blood flow to the heart in men and women undergoing similar physical stress simulated in this study with treadmill exercise.

These findings suggest that managing psychological stress may be particularly important for young women with heart disease.

Psychological stress causing less blood flow can trigger serious complications including chest pain, shortness of breath or even heart attacks. Study researchers think these findings may help explain why women with heart disease are more likely to die from heart attacks than men with heart disease.

Following the study, researchers highlighted the importance of identifying young women with heart disease and high levels of psychological stress so appropriate care plans can be made by their healthcare providers.

Trying simple modifications such as relaxation techniques, yoga, meditation, deep breathing, exercise, massages or walks can help reduce stress. Speak with your physician if you feel you need help dealing with stress in your life.

Dr. Ben Morrison is a cardiologist at St. Luke's Hospital and has a special interest in coronary artery disease, heart failure and valvular heart disease. For more information, visit St. Luke's heart care pages or call 314-434-3278.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on February 19, 2015.