Health & Medicine

Anxiety in youth might predict heart disease

"This stress is killing me" might not just be a saying anymore.

Anxiety and stress disorders early in life might signal increased risk of heart disease decades later, according to two recent studies published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Anxiety disorders include chronic anxiety, phobias, panic disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders. Science has known for years that anxiety can precipitate a heart attack or other acute cardiac event, 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 ages 18 and 20 when they reported for compulsory military service in 1969. 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 person. Factors including occupation, socioeconomic 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 — 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 recovering from heart attacks or heart surgery. 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.

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 heart health.

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 might compromise your physical health as well.

Some minor, temporary anxieties might be dispelled by a jog around the block. But chronic anxiety, panic or stress disorders require help from a health care provider. Seeking help for an anxiety disorder might do more than save your sanity — over the long term, it could save your life.