By Bunmi Sofola
Just thinking about being stressed can make you seriously ill, a study has revealed, and it is believed the increased perception of stress almost doubles the risk of suffering a heart attack. It is the first time a link has been discovered between heart disease and people’s own view on how stressed is affecting their health. The research suggests doctors should take a patients’ perspective into account when managing stress-related complaints. It could also mean that helping patients to unwind can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The study followed more than 7,000 civil servants over a period of up to 18 years. Participants, who had an average age of 49.5, were asked to what extent they felt day-to-day stress had affected their health. They were also asked about lifestyle factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, diet, and exercise, and their medical background was taken into account. Medical records were monitored to see how many fatal or non-fatal heart attacks occurred. Participants who felt stress was harming their health ‘a lot or extremely’—eight per cent of the group—were found to have double the risk of a heart attack compared to those who said it had no significant effects.
After taking account of other factors that could have affected the result, the team still found a 49 per cent greater risk if a person worried about stress. Lead author, Dr. Hermann Nabi, from the Inserm Medical Research Institute in Villejuif, France, said: ‘We found that the association we observed between an individual’s perception of the impact of stress on their health and their risk of a heart attack was independent of biological factors, unhealthy behaviours and other psychological factors. One of the important messages from our findings is that people’s perceptions about the impact of stress on their health are likely to be correct. This current analysis allows us to take account of individual differences in response to stress. Our findings show that responses to stress or abilities to cope with stress differ greatly between individuals, depending on the resources available to them, such as social support, social activities and previous experiences of stress.’