Economic Challenges Increase Cardiac Risks

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Rising unemployment rates. The worst Wall Street crises since the end of World War II. Record home foreclosures.

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There’s plenty of stress to go around, but how does it affect our health—and what can we do about it?

“Prolonged stress, both emotional and physical, impacts the overall cardiovascular status of our patients, particularly their blood pressure,” says Keith Churchwell, MD, executive medical director of the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute in Nashville, TN.

American and global stock markets on a daily rollercoaster ride, anxiety over the government’s Wall Street bailouts and increased financial instability may be taking their toll. These stressors can cause increased physical demands on the body, constriction of the coronary blood vessels and heightened electrical instability in the heart.

Emotional stress makes the heart work harder, which places greater stress on the whole cardiovascular system. Long-term elevation of blood pressure can have a harmful effect on the heart and entire vascular system. Stress hormones called catecholamines, including adrenaline, can have damaging effects on the heart muscle with prolonged exposure, Dr. Churchwell says.

“It’s not just the stress, but also how people adapt to stress,” he explains. Many people begin to eat poorly, stop exercising, start or resume smoking, drink alcohol and/or skip their medications.

“We will see a number of people come through the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Clinic for an evaluation of chest pain, elevated blood pressure and shortness of breath, which are outward manifestations of the emotional currents going on in their work lives,” Dr. Churchwell says. “They will either be dragged in by a family member who is worried about them or by a coworker.”

He hasn’t yet seen a patient whose heart troubles were caused by the recent stock market problems, but he wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility.

“We do see stress-related chest pain in people affiliated with the music business,” he says. “They have been on the road doing 50 shows in 52 nights. They call from the road and ask if they can be seen this week, and they pull the tour bus up in front of the hospital.”

Dr. Churchwell offers these tips to prevent stress from getting the better of you:

  • If you have a positive routine for stress relief, such as exercise, stay on it.
  • If you have to work 12–14 hours a day, take the time to eat healthfully.
  • Avoid junk food.
  • Continue to take your medications as prescribed.
  • Don’t resort to smoking and drinking alcohol as “stress relievers.”
  • If you experience chest pain, see a healthcare professional.

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