cardiovascular disease

How Does Stress Damage the Heart?

It is well known that stress affects the functionality of the heart, but now, a new study shows that through a process known as atherosclerosis, it can also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Atherosclerosis—progressive damage to the blood vessels around the heart and brain—is brought on by the increase of chemicals known as pro-inflammatory cytokines.

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In order to investigate the underlying process that associates these negative emotions with heart damage, researchers showed unpleasant images to 157 healthy adults and asked them to use the cognitive reappraisal strategy to combat negative emotions. 

During their exposure to the negative stimuli, researchers scanned participants’ brain activity as well as measured carotid artery thickness and diameter to assess for the presence of atherosclerosis.  

Participants who showed a higher level of brain activity while viewing the negative stimuli also showed elevated levels of interleukin-6—a pro-inflammatory cytokine— as well as increased thickness of the carotid artery wall.

This increase in inflammation levels explains the relationship between brain activity and atherosclerosis during emotional experiences.

The complete study is published in the May issue of Biological Psychiatry.

Michael Potts

Gianaros PJ, Marsland AL, Kuan DCH, et al. An inflammatory pathway links atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk to neural activity evoked by the cognitive regulation of emotion. Biological Psychiatry. 2014;75(9):738–745.