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Women’s hearts more vulnerable to stress
January 7, 2018, 4:11 pm

New study shows that mental stress leads to a constriction in arteries supplying blood to women’s hearts, raising the risk of potentially fatal heart complications, especially in women already suffering from heart diseases.

Past research has found that compared with their male counterparts, women with heart disease are more likely to suffer ‘myocardial ischemia’ — a reduction in blood flow to the heart — in response to mental stress. In the new study, researchers uncovered a reason for the phenomenon: When under psychological stress, women are more prone than men to having their blood vessels constrict.

There is no single solution to dealing with stress. For some people, a daily walk or an app that teaches relaxation techniques might be enough. Others might need a referral to a mental health professional. Doctors need to work with patients individually and recommend appropriate ways of dealing with stress.

The study involved 678 people with coronary artery disease. That means "plaques" build up in larger arteries, sometimes causing symptoms like chest pain and breathlessness. It can also lead to a heart attack if a plaque ruptures and completely blocks an artery.

Each patient went through a mental stress test of public speaking while researchers used heart imaging to see whether it triggered myocardial ischemia. Overall, around 15 percent of all study patients had stress-induced ischemia — with men and women affected at a similar rate. But the underlying causes differed between the sexes.

In women, it was mainly caused by constriction in small blood vessels, while in men mental stress triggered a rise in blood pressure and heart rate that increased the workload on hearts.

Past research has shown that women are more likely than men to have ‘micro-vascular dysfunction’ — problems in the small blood vessels that can impair the flow of blood to the heart. Researchers now contend that the higher rate of micro-vascular dysfunction might explain why women are more prone to blood vessel constriction when stressed.

Women, especially those suffering from heart diseases, need to consider the stressors in their lives, and how they respond to these stresses. Any form of physical exercise helps dilate blood vessels, which is the opposite effect of what we see with mental stress. Even simple techniques like regular exercise, daily walk, guided relaxation or meditation can be a good place to start, one researcher said.

The main message is, we need to find healthy ways to cope with stress, and this may be particularly important for women, who often do not put themselves ahead of other family members. But they need to take breaks every day, find ways to relax.

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