Mental stress, gender, and the heart

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Mental stress can cause arteries throughout the body to constrict. In people with heart disease, this effect can reduce blood supply to the heart muscle, a phenomenon known as mental stress–induced ischemia. New research suggests that this problem may affect women differently from men.

For the study, 678 adults (average age 63) delivered a speech while researchers measured their blood pressure and heart rate, took imaging pictures of their hearts, and measured the constriction of tiny arteries in their fingers. In women, mental stress–induced ischemia mostly resulted from constriction of tiny arteries. The resulting greater resistance requires the heart to use more force in pumping blood. In contrast, the ischemia seen in men was mostly due to a rise in blood pressure and heart rate. The findings are yet another reminder for people to find ways to avoid and manage mental stress. But they also hint that women's hearts may be more vulnerable to this problem. The study was published online Dec. 21, 2017, by the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology.