In the study, presented this week at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2014, 534 participants who all had stable heart disease underwent two tests — a physical stress test (e.g. exercising on a treadmill) and a mental stress test. To ramp up their mental stress, participants were asked to imagine a time in life when they had been stressed out about something. Then, they had to give a quick speech about that incident, in front of a small audience. During both tests (and while they were at rest) the participants' heart rate and blood pressure were monitored. The researchers also took nuclear images of the participants' hearts.
Results showed particularly intriguing patterns for the younger participants (those aged 55 and below): Women had triple the reduction in blood flow to the heart compared to men of the same age. But, this gender difference disappears in those age 65 and older. So, younger women — with already vulnerable hearts — may the most vulnerable to the detrimental effects of mental stress.
Although this study only looked at people who already had heart disease (meaning you ladies don't necessarily need to freak out if you're feeling a bit anxious just reading this), it does still bring up issues for the rest of us: We tend not to think of heart disease as being such a big deal for women, but the CDC states that it's actually their number-one killer in the U.S. — responsible for about a quarter of female deaths.
And, although lifestyle factors such as smoking have been previously considered the primary risk factors for heart disease in young women, this research suggests that mental and emotional stress may be playing a bigger role than we realize. But, beating stress doesn't have to be difficult to be effective — one excellent solution might already be right at your feet.