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Women's Health

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Mental Stress May Be Harder on Women's Hearts

Researchers Find Blood Flow to Women's Hearts Doesn't Increase in Face of Stress
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 24, 2012 -- Coping with mental stress may be harder on a woman's heart than a man's, according to new research.

Men and women given the same stressful math problem all had an increase in blood pressure and heart rate while solving it, as expected, says researcher Chester Ray, PhD, professor of medicine and cellular and molecular physiology at Penn State's College of Medicine in Hershey.

Normally, when heart rate and blood pressure rise, blood flow to the heart muscle increases so it can work harder, Ray says.

"However, in this case, even though the work of the heart went up, the blood flow to the heart did not go up in women, like in the men," he tells WebMD.

The difference might explain why women are more likely than men to have heart problems after emotional upset, such as the loss of a partner, Ray says.

Ray is due to present his findings at the Experimental Biology 2012 meeting in San Diego.

Mental Stress and Your Heart

Ray gave the math problem to nine men and eight women. "They were young, healthy people," he tells WebMD. Most were in their early 20s.

His team measured blood pressure and heart rate. They also used a special ultrasound to measure blood flow to the heart muscle. They did the tests before, during, and after the three-minute math problem.

The men and women had to keep subtracting seven from a random number.

To increase the mental stress, the researchers urged the men and women to hurry. They initially told them an answer wasn't right when it was.

Before doing the math problem, men and women did not have many differences in the three tests.

However, once the stress set in, men showed an increase in blood flow to the heart. Women overall did not.

"It shows women may be more susceptible to experiencing a cardiac event with mental stress compared to men," Ray says.

Next, Ray wants to focus on what accounts for the differences. Meanwhile, he says: "Stress reduction is important for everyone. I think this suggests women really have to be careful with stress."

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