We all handle stress in different ways. Some of us thrive under a pressing deadline while others crumble under the slightest indication of pressure. But our gender and age may also influence how our body responds to stress. That’s according to a new study presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association.
The researchers wanted to see how the blood vessels of an individual’s heart would respond to stress and whether that response would vary between genders and among age groups. The researchers recruited 534 participants, both males and females ranging in age from 38 to 79.
All patients had some degree of coronary artery disease, a disease where cholesterol builds up in the lining of the blood vessels that feed the heart. As this buildup grows, it starts to block off the blood flow to heart muscles. If this blockage becomes complete or a blood clot gets stuck at the narrow point, no blood gets to the heart muscle and a person has a heart attack.
After getting a sense of what the participants’ vessels looked like at rest, the research group subjected them to a round of mental stress and then a round of physical stress to see how their heart vessels would respond. The mental stress test put the participant in front of a small group of strangers and asked them to tell everyone a story about a situation they found stressful. They then came back several days later and ran on a treadmill to test their response to physical stress.
During both of these stresses, the researchers measured blood flow to the heart. They found significant differences in blood flow to the heart between men and women during mental stress, especially at certain ages. Women under 55 saw the blood flow to their heart lowered by three times the amount seen in men of the same age. This difference lessened, but was still present for women under 65 compared to men under 65. After crossing into the late 60s, men and women responded the same way to mental stress. The picture was markedly different for the physical stress tests, where men and women did about the same.
The finding is important because it shows that young women with heart disease are doubly in danger. Life under 55 can be particularly stressful for women who are often in the process of trying to balance the stress of raising children with the stress of their career. Their blood vessels respond to this stress more dramatically than do those of men, leading to more blood deprivation and more harmful effects in the long term.
The researchers hope their findings will push physicians to ask about stress when examining and advising a female patient with heart disease. In those who are stressed, counseling and instruction on stress-reduction techniques can be done. In particular, exercise is an important way to help these individuals. Exercise lowers stress and boosts mood while also strengthening the heart and improving blood flow. And unlike mental stress, physical stress is no more taxing in young women than in other members of the general population.