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Feeling stressed? That could be taking a toll on your heart

How stressed people think they are has been linked to their risk of suffering from incident coronary heart disease in what researchers say is a first of its kind study.

Researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center conducted a meta-analysis of six different studies involving nearly 120,000. In those studies, participants answered questions such as "How stressed do you feel?" and "How often are you stressed?" in order to gauge their perceived stress. They were then divided into two groups – those with low perceived stress and those with high perceived stress – and followed for an average of 14 years.

People with high perceived stress were found to be 27 per cent more likely to suffer from incident coronary heart disease or coronary heart disease mortality.

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"While it is generally accepted that stress is related to heart disease, this is the first meta-analytic review of the association of perceived stress and incident CHD," senior author Donald Edmondson, an assistant professor of behavioural medicine at CUMC, said in a release. "This is the most precise estimate of that relationship and it gives credence to the widely held belief that general stress is related to heart health."

High stress was found to have the same effect on blood pressure as smoking five cigarettes a day, researchers added.

However, they were not able to say how stress can lead to CHD, sometimes called coronary artery disease. The disease, usually the result of a buildup of plaque in the arteries, is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every three deaths in that country is from CHD and stroke, the equivalent of 2,200 deaths a day.

Researchers said the next step is to examine the viability of large-scale stress reduction initiatives as well as to determine whether people's stress is due to lifestyle or personality characteristics.

"We also need to ask why we found this association between stress and CHD, e.g., what biological components or mechanisms are involved, and what is the role of environment or lifestyle (e.g., diet, alcohol and drug use, exercise) and how best to moderate these factors to lower the risk of CHD," Safiya Richardson, a researcher who worked on the meta-study, said in the release.

Dr. Richardson added: "The key takeaway is that how people feel is important for their heart health, so anything they can do to reduce stress may improve their heart health in the future."

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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