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Is mental stress harder on women’s hearts?

Mental stress is tough on everyone, but a recent study suggests that it may take a heavier toll on women than men.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that women with heart disease are more vulnerable to psychological stress because it causes their blood vessels to constrict.

 “When women are under mental stress, the vasculature leading up to their heart constricts,” says Lauren Fyock, RN, CHC, a women’s heart program coordinator at Piedmont. “That essentially causes decreased blood flow to the heart, which ultimately leads to less effective and efficient pumping to the entire body.”

Research has shown that women with heart disease are more likely than their male counterparts to suffer from a condition called myocardial ischemia when they are under mental stress. Myocardial ischemia is the abnormal restriction of blood flow to the heart, and it can increase the risk of a heart attack or death from heart disease.

“We always knew that mental stress could cause problems, but we didn’t know how seriously it could impact cardiovascular health,” Fyock says. “It’s important for women to understand how mental stress can actually affect you and to identify and acknowledge when they are stressed.”  

The study also highlights the importance of physicians monitoring a patient’s stress levels when they are being treated for heart disease. Typically, doctors check blood pressure and heart rate to assess your cardiovascular health, but it is equally important to monitor a patient’s stress levels.

“In women, we tend to look at big factors like blood pressure and heart rate to assess cardiovascular health,” says Fyock.  “If those are okay, we just assume that all is well. But the study showed that mental stress could be silently wreaking havoc on the body. And you wouldn’t know it unless you did significant cardiovascular imaging and testing. And it usually happens over time.”

How to save your heart

Women with heart disease are especially vulnerable to mental stress and may need help managing stress while being treated for their condition. To manage stress, Fyock recommends the following:

  • Acknowledge your stress. First, identify that you're stressed, and know that it's okay to be stressed. It doesn’t mean you are weak. You are normal.
  • Make time for meditation or mindfulness. Focus on being in tune with your mind, body, and heart. "I'm a big believer in that,” Fyock says. “There are so many easy ways to do that with smartphone apps that are free. You can also take mindful walks, where you're literally just trying to escape for as little as five to ten minutes.”
  • Exercise.Exercise actually does the opposite of what stress does,” Fyock explains. “Exercise dilates the arteries, getting more blood flow to your heart. So it’s important to increase your exercise.”
  • Eat healthier. Focus on how to eat more from the earth. Try to avoid processed foods and eat more lean proteins, fruits and vegetables.

To learn more about the women’s heart program at Piedmont, check out our page.

 

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