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."
Stress and Women's Hearts: Perspective
The study does suggest that mental stress tends to be more significant on a woman's heart, says Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, a preventive cardiologist and director of Women and Heart Disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
She reviewed the study findings. "I think we have to understand that mental stress is something we have to pay attention to in everybody," she says. "In women it might be more significant and affect women's hearts more."
Women who have heart-related symptoms while under stress need to tell their doctor, she says.
The findings may partially explain "broken heart syndrome," says William O'Neill, MD, executive dean of research at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
Women sometimes experience extreme stress when they find out their partner has died, he says. "Women come into the hospital and look like they have had a massive heart attack, but there is no blockage," O'Neill tells WebMD.
"The message to women is, if they feel discomfort if under extreme stress, they should let their doctor know," O'Neill says.
This study was presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary, as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.