Posttraumatic Stress Disorder occurs when a person is faced with a dangerous situation, fears for their own life and/or others, or feels powerless in controlling a harmful situation (National Center for PTSD). Women are ten percent more likely than men to be impacted by PTSD after a traumatic experience, and this increased risk also impacts their susceptibility to heart attacks.
PTSD patients suffer from increased stress, depression, and anxiety. Because of their experienced trauma and subsequent condition that follows, women with PTSD are 60% more likely to have a heart attack than women without the condition, according to a recent study. Taking place at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and directed by Jennifer Sumner, the study picked apart the causes of heart attacks in the aftermath of patients' PTSD symptoms. Sumner and the other researchers were able to attribute 50% of the increased heart attack risk of female PTSD patients to lifestyle changes like smoking, drinking, and a sedentary lifestyle. These lifestyle changes can be explained by the resulting stress after suffering from PTSD for an extended period of time. In addition, amplified stress from a traumatic event itself and the following increase of cortisol levels in the body also directly contributed to increased heart attack risk in women with PTSD.
Although Sumner and the other researchers at Columbia have gained a lot of insight on the connection between women with PTSD and heart attack risk in the past few years, "whether symptom remission is associated with less risk remains unknown" (Circulation, American Heart Association).
In a CNN story about the variety of causes of heart attacks, Dr. Melissa Wood of Massachusetts General Hospital explained microvascular disease as a less commonly known cause of heart attacks. One of her patients with this condition experienced a heart attack even though her arteries were completely clear. Apparently small, deep arteries in the heart muscle "either do not relax well enough or can actually go into spasm," causing a heart attack just as a blocked artery would. Wood attributes a cause of microvascular disease to increased cases of stress, similar to what the researchers at Columbia found in their study of women with and without PTSD. Wood's patient, Lori Robicheau-Pagan, says she looks to "reduce stress" and "find a balance." As Sumner and her team at Columbia continue looking into the connection between PTSD, heart attack risk, and potentially amending that risk by reducing symptoms, hopefully more will be known about relieving stress to decrease risk of heart attacks.
In the video below, Dr. Peter Block from the American College of Cardiology further discusses the connection between stress and heart disease.
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