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Mental Stress, Physical Illness

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Aug. 12, 2002 -- Taking stress to heart could put your life at risk. New research shows women who report high levels of mental stress are twice as likely to die from stroke or heart disease than those with low stress levels. And stressed-out men may not fare much better.

Mental stress has already been shown to increase the risk of heart disease in white men. But until now, researchers say the effects of stress on women and on people in other ethnic groups have not been extensively studied.

Hiroyaso Iso, MD, of the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki-ken, Japan, gathered information from more than 73,000 Japanese men and women aged 40-79. Each of the study participants completed a lifestyle survey that included questions about perceived stress levels. The researchers monitored their health for about eight years.

Nearly 9,000 women and 7,000 men reported high mental stress. Researchers found that women in the high-stress group were more than twice as likely as those with low stress to suffer a stroke or develop heart disease. This held true even after accounting for other potential causes.

High-stress women were also more likely than their relaxed counterparts to report a history of high blood pressure or diabetes. The stressed-out women tended to be younger, more educated, and less physically active.

In addition, researchers say that these high-stress women were also more likely to be angry, be in a hurry, feel hopeless, and feel unfulfilled.

The study found the overall link between mental stress and cardiovascular disease in general to be stronger among women than men. But men who reported medium or high levels of mental stress were nearly twice as likely to suffer a heart attack.

Researchers say they aren't exactly sure why they found a stronger association between mental stress and heart disease among women, but there might be a great deal of fluctuation in life stress as well as variance in how people perceive stress. Men may have also been less inclined than women to admit having high mental stress.

Stress is thought to increase the risk of heart disease and stroke in a variety of ways, such as raising blood pressure and affecting how the blood flows and clots.

The findings are published in the Aug. 13 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

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