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Brain Scans Give Clues to Stress-Heart Attack Link

Fear appears to increase inflammation in the arteries, researchers say

A recent brain study was conducted and it was found out that a high level of stress is associated with an increased risk of stroke and heart attack.

The amygdale is the fear center of the brain, and when there is an increased activity in this part of the brain, the result can be an immune system reaction that increases the inflammation in the arteries. This is going to be reported at the American College of Cardiology meeting in Chicago.

This type of arterial inflammation can lead to heart disease, stroke and heart attack, the senior researcher Dr. Ahmed Tawakol, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston has stated.

In the research conducted by Tawakol and his colleagues, about 300 people were included and their amygdale activity was followed. As the brain scans showed, the increased amygdale activity can contribute to a major cardiac event in the near future.

According to Tawakol, by the end of the research, about five percent of the people who have had low activity had events, compared to nearly 40 percent of the people with high amygdale activity.

According to Dr. Richard Becker, director of cardiovascular health and disease at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and director of the university’s Heart, Lung & Vascular Institute, doctors should be acquainted with the fact that current events, like the Syrian crisis, the terrorist attacks in Brussels, and other, can have consequences on the health of the heart.

Becker, the spokesman of the American Heart Association claims that the incidence of heart attacks is substantially increased after an earthquake or a tsunami, up to six to eight weeks afterwards. This statistics also goes for other human disasters, including terrorism, especially if it is on a large scale.

The amount of evidence about the link between stress and heart disease has been increasing, so, as a result, stress is now put in the group of risk factors like cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, and high blood pressure, Tawakol claimed.

However, we should also know that stress that derives from anger, hostility, uncertainty, or hopelessness can directly impact the heart, Tawakol reports.

As animal studies indicate, stress can lead to release of inflammatory cells from the bone marrow, increasing thus the inflammation in the arteries.

When it comes to humans, this was not certain, so researchers tested PET/CT scans for 293 patients aged 55 on average, who originally got the test between 2005 and 2008 for cancer screening, but were discovered to be cancer-free.

Thanks to the scans, researchers were able to measure the activity in different regions in the brain, the bone marrow and in the arteries. In case that a patient had evidence of cancer, heart disease or if they were younger than 30, they were excluded from the examination.

This study lasted for five years, and during this period, 22 patients experienced a heart attack or a stroke.

The scientists discovered that the increased activity in the amygdale region contributes to an increased activity in the bone marrow and an increased inflammation in the arteries as well.

Moreover, increased activity in the amygdale was associated to a greater risk of heart attack or stroke. The risk of heart attack and stroke in these patients was fourteen times increased for every unit in the increase in the brain stress activity, researchers informed.

The amygdale was also proven to impact the timing of the stroke or the heart attack. According to Tawakol, people with an event within a year after imaging had the highest amygdale activity values. Individuals who had the lowest amygdale activity went the longest prior to suffering a heart attack or stroke, according to the results from the research.

Becker honored the research.

According to his words, the authors of the study could connect the dots from the brain to inflammation in the blood vessels to the cardiovascular incidences. This is pretty important because it helps us understand what stressors can actually do to our health.

These study results indicate how important it is to get rid of the stress in life, be it through meditation, exercise, humor, hanging out with friends, etc., Becker and Tawakol said.

All cardiologists and primary care physicians need to know how to gauge the stress of a patient, not only diagnose them with high blood pressure or diabetes. They need to be rigorous in detecting a person’s stress.

The research also hints at new methods to head off heart attacks related to stress. For instance, it has been shown in animal studies that some beta blockers can lower the amount of inflammatory cells produced by the bone marrow as a response to stress. Still, as Tawakol claims, we do not know if the same results are repeated in people.

All data and conclusions that still have not been published in a medical journal and that have not been peer-reviewed are thought to be preliminary.

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