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Path from chronic stress to heart disease clarified

The well-known link between stress and heart disease starts with stress and other factors that can lead to poor health habits, according to a new study.

Until now, little was known about exactly how chronic stress led to coronary heart disease, but the study in the May issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, sheds new light on the potentially deadly process.

Peter P. Vitaliano, Ph.D., of the University of Washington, reports that while the exact path connecting chronic stress and heart disease may vary from person to person, there appears to be a general pattern at least in men.

First, chronic stress is associated with psychological distress; factors such as unsatisfactory social supports and poor coping skills may contribute to the link. The psychological distress is associated with poor health habits, such as insufficient exercise and poor diet, and a number of changes in body composition and metabolism that are well-established risk factors for heart disease. Eventually, these changes in body composition and chemistry known collectively as the metabolic syndrome produce heart disease.

Evidence for this model comes from a 30-month study of 152 married, older adults conducted by Vitaliano and his colleagues. Eighty of the subjects were caregivers for spouses with Alzheimers disease; previous studies have shown that such caregivers routinely experience numerous physical, emotional and financial stressors.

The demands of caregiving, coupled with the biological vulnerabilities of aging, put spouse caregivers at increased risk for [coronary heart disease], making them an ideal population for studying the relationship between heart disease and chronic stress, Vitaliano explains. The other 72 adults, none of them caregivers, served as a comparison group.

The researchers began by examining each subject for attributes that tend to produce psychological distress, such as low income, high exposure to stressors and insufficient
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Contact: Walter Neary
wneary@u.washington.edu
206-685-3841
Center for the Advancement of Health
23-May-2002


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