By Dr. Alison Bailey
“This stress is killing me” might not just be a saying anymore.
According to two recent studies published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, anxiety and stress disorders early in life may signal increased risk of heart disease decades later. Anxiety disorders include: chronic anxiety, phobias, panic disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders. Science has known for years that anxiety can precipitate an acute cardiac even like a heart attack, but the idea that anxiety in young people can be used to predict heart disease risk is a new one.
One scientific study published in June 2010 followed 49,321 young Swedish men from 1969 to 2006. All were between the ages of 18-20 when they reported for compulsory military service in 1969, and all of the men received complete physical and psychiatric examinations at that time. The men were followed into middle age, using the Swedish health system’s comprehensive records to keep up with the health of each individual. Factors including occupation, socio-economic group and physical activity were all included in the study.
Even when controlling for many of the most common risk factors for heart disease – obesity, high blood pressure and heredity – it emerged that the men who were diagnosed by mental health professionals as suffering from anxiety disorders in their youth were more likely to experience coronary heart disease than their non-anxious peers.
At the UK HealthCare Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Program, we often see people who are recovering from heart attacks, heart surgery or similar conditions. But many people also come to us to exercise, learn about good heart health and reduce their risk factors for heart disease. We help them create an exercise and diet program, provide education and encourage lifestyle change – all things that we know help lower heart disease risk. We also routinely assess for depression, a known risk for future heart disease events. How to prevent cardiac risk related to anxiety is a tricky question, though.
The current studies do not answer many questions, such as whether anxiety risk is irreversible, or how long an anxiety order must persist to damage heat health. More research is needed.
What the studies do make clear, however, is that far from being “all in your head”, anxiety is a real problem to discuss with your doctor. If anxiety has reached the level of interfering with your daily life, it’s time to tell your doctor, and talk about how untreated anxiety may compromise your physical health as well.
Sure, some minor, temporary anxieties may be dispelled by a jog around the block. But chronic anxiety, panic or stress disorders require help from a healthcare provider. Reaching out for help with an anxiety disorder may do more than save your sanity – over the long term, it could save your life.
Dr. Alison Bailey is a Gill Heart Institute cardiologist and director of the UK HealthCare Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Program.