How Well Does Your Heart & Brain Handle Stress?

The link between stress and heart disease may be found in the brain

 

How well does your body react to a fight with a loved one? A face-off with the boss? A major loss by your favorite sports team?

It could depend on what kind of brain you have.

Stressful events trigger a temporary increase in blood pressure for many people, but now a new study examines just what role the human brain plays in shaping cardiovascular changes during those times of tension.

While these short-term changes may help the body respond to stress at the time of the event, they may increase a person’s risk for high blood pressure and even premature death from cardiovascular disease over the long run.

A new study published Wednesday by the Journal of the American Heart Association describes how researchers found a pattern of brain activity that predicted blood pressure spikes from stress among some people.

Brain scans show specific areas of the brain where activity predicted blood pressure during stress. Cool colors (blue-green) mark brain areas where activity predicted lower blood pressure under stress. Hot colors (red-yellow) mark areas that predicted higher blood pressure under stress. (Image courtesy of Peter Gianaros, Ph.D.)

Brain scans show specific areas of the brain where activity predicted blood pressure during stress. Cool colors (blue-green) mark brain areas where activity predicted lower blood pressure under stress. Hot colors (red-yellow) mark areas that predicted higher blood pressure under stress. (Image courtesy of Peter Gianaros, Ph.D.)

This brain pattern may help reveal the influence psychological stress can have on physical health – and how some risk factors for heart disease and stroke may depend on what’s inside a person’s head, perhaps as much as how well an individual treats the body.

“We’re sort of looking under the hood, so to speak, to try to understand what brain activity for a given person can tell us about why that person’s cardiovascular system is responding to stress in a certain way,” said neuroscientist Peter Gianaros, Ph.D., the study’s lead researcher. “The idea is to basically say, okay, can you look at someone’s pattern of brain activity during stress and then predict how much the blood pressure is going to go up?”

The study focused specifically on blood pressure because previous research has indicated that the more blood pressure increases during stress, the more likely the risk for cardiovascular disease in the future.

In the study, researchers used functional MRI to capture images of brain activity in 310 adults as they performed stressful mental activities. The images revealed a pattern of brain activity that researchers used to predict which stressed-out subjects would get a bump in their blood pressure.

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