Take Heart | TheUnion.com

Take Heart

Valerie Costa
Special to The Union

In today's fast paced world, so many of us suffer from some level of anxiety. Worry about paying the bills, performance on the job, family issues, politics, and so much more keep many people in a heightened state of stress.

While we all sense on some level that this constant anxiety cannot be good for us, for some the result could be worse than we could have ever imagined.

Recent studies have linked anxiety and stress to heart disease, which kills about the same number of men and women in the U.S. each year but is the leading cause of death in American women. In fact, heart disease causes one in four female deaths according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

One reason that the mortality rate is so high in women is that in typical fashion; they underreport their symptoms and soldier on, causing their heart disease to be misdiagnosed or missed completely.

"Chronic stress exposes your body to unhealthy persistently elevated levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol," explained Jeffrey M. Rosenburg, MD, MBA, Chief Medical Officer of Dignity Health Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. "Stress is linked to changes in the way that blood clots which also increases the risk of heart attack."

Doctors may especially miss signs of heart disease in those with anxiety disorders because some of the symptoms, including chest discomfort, fatigue, shortness of breath, a feeling of being anxious, or heart palpitations, are similar to those of anxiety.

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Researchers at the University of Quebec at Montreal found that in women who had never been diagnosed with heart disease, those with anxiety were 75 percent more likely than women without anxiety to have reduced blood flow to the heart during activity.

In a study published in the online journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, over 2,300 patients underwent an exercise stress test and a psychiatric interview.

The exercise stress test looked for reduced blood flow (ischemia), which can cause a shortage of oxygen to the heart, and the effects of gender and mood/anxiety on this condition.

The study found that anxiety disorders appear to be more common in women than in men, and there is a link between these disorders and worse cardiac outcomes.

While the most common heart disease symptom for both genders is discomfort in the chest or upper body, women may also experience neck, jaw, shoulder or upper back pain; shortness of breath; nausea; abdominal pain; heartburn; sweating and dizziness; and unusual fatigue.

Women can also experience different symptoms from men during a heart attack. For example, women are more likely to describe chest pain that is sharp or burning and more frequently have pain in the neck, jaw, throat, abdomen or back, the CDC says.

"Men and women have about the same likelihood to experience heart attacks, but women have a higher risk of dying from a heart attack than men do because they don't realize they are having a heart attack and take too long to get help," Rosenburg cautioned.

Taking preventative measures to manage stress and anxiety can dramatically decrease your odds of developing heart disease or suffering a heart attack. According to Rosenburg, the best thing you can do keep your heart healthy is to exercise.

"Regular exercise is one of the best ways to manage stress. Walking is a great way to get started," he suggested. "Techniques to relax like breathing exercises, muscle relaxation and yoga can also help relieve stress."

The team at SNMH encourages everyone to understand their personal risk factors for heart disease and to communicate with their doctors about their medical history and any symptoms they may be experiencing.

The American Heart Association has great, free information for anyone interested in heart disease.

If you want to go a step further, you can take a Basic Life Support Class from the American Heart Association. It teaches you what to do if someone around you is having a heart attack, which could save the life of a loved one. Rosenburg gave a few simple suggestions that could be the difference ultimately between life and death.

"Control blood pressure. Stress management. Healthy diet. Reduce cholesterol levels. Get regular checkups by your physician, at least once per year," he suggested.

Don't wait until stress and anxiety have pushed you into an early grave. Take steps now to manage your stress and enjoy a healthier and happier heart.

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