SSM Health Medical Minute: How stress and heart attacks are linked

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ST. LOUIS (KPLR) - Activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with fear and stress, can predict your risk for heart disease and stroke, according to a study published in the journal The Lancet last Wednesday.

The new study involved 293 adults who underwent PET and CT scans at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston between 2005 and 2008. The scans recorded brain activity, bone marrow activity, spleen activity and inflammation in the heart arteries. Some animal studies have suggested that stress can lead to increased activity of cells in bone marrow and the spleen. Next, researchers tracked the health of each patient for two to five years, during which 22 of the patients had a cardiovascular disease event, such as a stroke, heart attack or heart failure.

After analyzing the scans and heart health of each patient, the researchers found that higher activity in the amygdala was associated with a higher risk of a cardiovascular event. The link between the amygdala and cardiovascular disease events remained significant even after the researchers took other cardiovascular risk factors into account, such as smoking, diabetes or hypertension.

The finding suggests a complex chain of events that might explain the stress and heart risk link. Stress may activate the amygdala, leading to extra immune cell production by the bone marrow, which in turn may impact the arteries, causing inflammation, which could lead to a cardiovascular disease event, such as a heart attack or stroke.

To learn more about Dr. Kiran Kancherla, director of cardiology at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital, click here.