March 31, 2008 (Chicago) -- Here's another reason to learn relaxation techniques. Researchers have found that lowering or keeping anxiety levels in check dramatically cuts the risk of heart attack or death in people with heart disease.
In a study of more than 500 heart patients, those who reduced or kept their anxiety levels steady were about 50% to 60% less likely to have a heart attack or die compared with those who experienced an increase in anxiety levels.
The findings were presented at the American College of Cardiology's 57th Annual Scientific Session.
Stress a Risk Factor for Heart Disease
While there is "a ton of data" linking increased stress to heart disease, there have been very few studies showing that lowering stress can improve heart health, says Yinong Young-Xu, PhD, of the Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation in Brookline, Mass.
Seeking to fill in the knowledge gap, Young-Xu and colleagues followed 516 patients with coronary artery disease. That means they had plaque buildup in their arteries, making it harder for blood to get through, depriving the heart muscle of oxygen, and placing them at increased risk for heart attack and death.
At the start of the study, patients were given a questionnaire to determine their anxiety levels. The questionnaire was repeated annually.
Young-Xu tells WebMD that the questionnaire includes about 24 yes/no questions relating to anxiety, such as "Do you feel nervous about your heart disease?" and "Do you have trouble falling asleep?"
Over a 3 1/2 year period, 44 of the participants had a heart attack and 19 died.
Results showed that people whose anxiety levels dropped over the course of the study were 61% less likely to die or have a heart attack than those with an increase in anxiety. People whose anxiety levels remained stable were 51% less likely to die or have a heart attack compared with those with increased anxiety.
"These are remarkable risk reductions," Young-Xu says.
Suggested Anxiety Antidotes
According to the researchers, nearly one-third of heart patients suffer anxiety disorders during their lifetimes.
Young-Xu says the next step is to look at how heart patients lower anxiety. "Is it medication, psychological treatment, better doctor-patient relationships, exercise, or relaxation techniques?" he says.
Also, he wants to follow patients who are treated for anxiety to see if they do better than their untreated counterparts.
For now, he says, "pay attention to your emotional as well as your physical well-being. If you suffer from anxiety, seek treatment. It can prolong and improve your life."
Janet Wright, MD, senior vice president for science and quality at the ACC and moderator of a news conference to discuss the findings, says that too many people dismiss anxiety as a "normal" part of modern life.
"Take it seriously and treat it seriously," she advises. Among her recommended anxiety antidotes: relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation.
"Even a phone call to a friend can reduce anxiety," Wright says.