Itís what you do, not how you feel that damages heart and blood pressure

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Itís what you do, not how you feel that damages heart and blood pressure

Key Points
  • Stress, anxiety and depression have been linked with heart disease
  • This 7-year study suggests that it is not a person’s mental state that damages the heart and arteries, but the behaviours it produces
  • Almost all the increase in heart disease risk could be attributed to increases in smoking and physical inactivity that often occur with “psychological distress”

Previous studies have shown that stress, anxiety and depression increase your risk of having a heart attack in later life. Yet, suffering from stress has not been shown to cause high blood pressure (one of the main risk factors for heart disease). For this reason, researchers were keen to discover whether the increase in heart disease is due to the “psychological distress” itself or the behaviours it produces.

The Scottish study followed the mental state, health behaviour and heart disease risk of more than 6,500 people for an average of 7 years. The researchers recorded people’s mood, mental state, height, weight, physical activity, alcohol intake and smoking. They also measured various risk factors for heart disease and damage to the arteries.

During the 7 years of study, there were 223 heart attacks, strokes and medical interventions for heart problems – 63 of which resulted in death. When these events were correlated with mental state, it was found that anxiety and depression increased the risk of heart disease problems and stroke by 54%.

Yet, when the researchers began to investigate the lifestyles of people who were stressed or had depression or anxiety, the causes of the increased risk became apparent. People with psychological distress were more likely to smoke, be less active and drink more alcohol than the recommended limits. These unhealthy behaviours accounted for 65% of the increased risk in heart and artery problems.

Because their findings, the researchers suggest that the best way to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke if you are stressed, anxious or depressed is to become more active and avoid smoking.


Hamer M, Molloy GJ, Stamatakis E. Psychological distress as a risk factor for cardiovascular events. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2008;52:2156-2162. DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2008.08.057.

von Känel R. Psychological distress and cardiovascular risk. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2008;52:2163-2164. DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2008.09.015

Topics: Research, Lifestyle, High blood pressure

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