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Hormone in Hair May Reveal Heart Risk

Study Shows High Levels of Cortisol in Hair Shaft May Raise the Risk of Heart Attack

Can Stress Be Lowered?

Some heart disease risk factors can be modified such as blood pressure and cholesterol, while others like age and gender can't, he explains. "We don't know if cortisol is one that we can change," he says. "If we can reduce it with stress-reduction measures, that is great, but if we can't, it could point us toward a high-risk group who will benefit from more aggressive management of other modifiable risk factors."

The new hair test is not ready for prime time, VanUum says.

"It is still fairly labor intensive," he says. "The next steps are to look at hair cortisol in women, and to see if there is any intervention to reduce cortisol levels in hair, such as behavioral therapy," he says.

Is Hair Cortisol the New Cholesterol? Maybe

"Not only did hair cortisol levels differ among men in each group, but they were also the strongest predictor of who would have a heart attack," says Redford Williams, MD, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. Williams has been calling attention to the stress-heart disease connection for years.

"This is yet another nail in the coffin of those who believe that stress is not a risk factor for heart attack," he says of the new study.

Is routinely measuring hair cortisol -- and intervening if it is elevated -- an option? 

Maybe one day, he says. "More research is needed before we get to the point that we routinely measure cortisol in the hair, but we are getting there," he tells WebMD.

Williams would like to see a study that looks at how, or if, stress management techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy affect hair cortisol levels.

"If we could show that they go down, that would a powerful demonstration that it is possible to train people to manage stress in ways that reduce basic levels of cortisol production and secretion in their blood," he tells WebMD.

Until then, William suggests that everyone takes steps to keep their stress to a minimum.

"Work hard to change things that you can change and need changing, but really let go of anger, stress, and frustration that you can't change," he suggests. 

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