Will Boggs, MD
Reuter’s Health April 24, 2001
Women who harbor feelings of anger or depression are more likely to have heart disease risk factors such as high cholesterol and an unhealthy weight, a new study shows. Researchers say the findings add more support to the idea that physical and psychological factors conspire to raise an individual’s heart disease risk.
While research has shown these relationships are present among men, less has been known about how psychological factors interact with physical health to affect women’s hearts, Dr. Thomas Rutledge of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania told Reuters Health.
In a study of nearly 700 middle-aged women with chest pain, Rutledge and his colleagues looked for links between known artery-disease risk factors–such as high blood pressure, obesity and smoking–and psychological factors such as depression, hostility and anger expression.
According to results published in the March-April issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, the women’s scores on psychological tests were related to each of the traditional risk factors for hardened arteries, also known as atherosclerosis.
For example, the authors report, women who were highly depressed based on test scores were nearly three times as likely to smoke compared with women who had the lowest depression scores.
Moreover, women rated as the most hostile also had the highest levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and the lowest levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
Increases in psychological distress were consistently linked to increases in the physical risk factors for heart disease and atherosclerosis, the report indicates.
These findings, according to the researchers, are consistent with those from other studies linking psychological factors with heart disease risk. And, they note, the findings may also help explain the higher rates of complications and death that have been found among psychologically distressed women who suffer heart attacks.
“One perhaps encouraging way to look at these findings,” Rutledge said, “is that they suggest that psychological variables can impact heart disease risk, but perhaps mainly through readily controllable, modifiable behavior patterns.”
For instance, he said, even women who deal with stress and negative feelings on a daily basis can still recognize and try to change how their moods affect their diet, exercise levels and other health habits.
“For those with more severe psychological distress or disorders,” Rutledge added, “reducing depression may reduce one’s risk for heart disease, as well as promote better mental health and quality of life.”