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Stress in the Brain Today Manifests as Cardiovascular Problems Tomorrow

woman with headache

Zawn Villines, Correspondent

Increased activity in the amygdala—a brain region associated with fear and other emotions—is correlated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a new study scheduled to be presented April 4 at the American College of Cardiology’s 65th Annual Scientific Session in Chicago.

Doctors have long believed stress could contribute to cardiovascular health issues, including high blood pressure and heart attacks, but the connection between the two issues was not well understood. This study sheds light on one mechanism by which stress might affect the heart.

Stress on Brain Scans Linked to Cardiovascular Problems

Researchers evaluated positron emission tomography (PET) scans for 293 participants with an average age of 55. Each person underwent a scan between 2005 and 2008 to evaluate for cancer. The scans also provided information about brain activity and arterial health. The team excluded participants who were under 30, had a history of cardiovascular disease, or who showed signs of cancer.

An hour before the PET scan was conducted, doctors injected each participant with a radioactive atom attached to a molecule of glucose. This enabled more “active” tissue to metabolize more glucose, therefore lighting up more on the scan. The radiologist who evaluated activity levels in the images did not know the patients’ medical histories or identifying characteristics, reducing concerns about bias.

Researchers used the Framingham Risk Score, a cardiovascular assessment tool, to correct for cardiovascular risk factors. They also adjusted the results according to age and gender, which can alter cardiovascular risks. Next, they looked at how activity in the amygdala correlated with cardiovascular risk. Because the amygdala helps process emotions related to fear and stress, higher levels of activity in this region are thought to indicate high stress levels.

Even after adjusting for other cardiovascular risk factors, researchers witnessed a significant increase in cardiovascular issues among high-stress participants. Over five years, 35% of participants deemed “high-stress” experienced a cardiovascular episode, compared to just 5% in the “low-stress” group.

More Stress, More Inflammation?

Studies on animals have linked high levels of stress to greater inflammation in the arteries and bone marrow. This study found similar in humans, suggesting high stress levels affect not just the mind, but also the body. However, further research is necessary to determine whether the same results from the animal study could be replicated in humans.

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cardiovascular disease accounts for 1 in 4 deaths. Among most groups, it is the leading cause of death, claiming 610,000 lives each year.


  1. Brain scans give clues to stress-heart attack link. (2016, March 24). Retrieved from
  2. Heart disease facts. (2015, August 10). Retrieved from
  3. Hsu, C. (2016, March 25). Brain stress activity may help predict future heart problems. Retrieved from

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