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Can Stress Increase Your Risk for Having a Stroke?

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WebMD Health News

May 31, 2001 -- If stress gets your blood boiling, try to take it down a notch. You may be at increased risk for stroke, according to a new study from epidemiologists who studied a large group of Finnish men for 11 years. Men whose blood pressure shot up when they were exposed to stress had a 72% higher risk for stroke than men in whom stress didn't affect blood pressure.

But one U.S. stroke expert tells WebMD that while the new findings make interesting reading, they don't add up to much in terms of preventing stroke.

The findings are reported in the June issue of Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association.

The researchers from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and the University of Kuopio in Finland have been attempting to pinpoint risk factors for stroke. John W. Lynch, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, tells WebMD that the researchers tried to determine if stress-induced sudden increases in blood pressure could be an important risk factor.

Lynch explains that some people are more susceptible to these stress-induced increases than other people. For example some people have unusually high blood pressure when they visit their doctors, a phenomenon called "white coat hypertension," meaning that the site of a doctor or nurse sends the patients blood pressure into the stratosphere.

To test the relationship between stress and blood pressure the researchers told the 2,303 volunteers that they were going to have an exercise stress test. The men, all of whom were middle-aged, live in an area where heart disease is common and they knew that the test results "could find heart disease."

Lynch says that the researchers compared the blood pressure readings taken just before an exercise stress test to measurements taken when the men were first enrolled in the study. The men were then followed for an average of 11 years, says Lynch. During that time 113 strokes were diagnosed in these men.

An increased risk for stroke was seen among those men who had stress-induced increases in systolic blood pressure, says Lynch. Each one-point increase in systolic pressure -- meaning the first, or higher number of the blood pressure measurement -- corresponded to a 1.5% increase in risk for ischemic stroke, meaning a stroke caused by a blood clot.

Lynch says that this blood pressure reactivity varies greatly but generally those who are poorer and less educated are more susceptible to stress-induced increases in blood pressure.

"One doesn't have to be a rocket scientists to figure out that more bad things happen to people in lower economic classes," he says. In this study men who were poor and who had sudden blood pressure increases were "three times more likely to have a stroke."

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