PUBLISHED: 19:32 EST, 24 April 2012 | UPDATED: 19:32 EST, 24 April 2012
Mental stress can literally be heart-breaking for women – leading them to be more likely than men to suffer coronary problems, a study claims.
The findings could help explain why women are more likely than men to be hit by coronary symptoms after emotional upsets such as losing a spouse.
The U.S. study examined the effects of mental stress on blood flow through the heart.
It found this actually increases in men during mental stress, but there was no such change in women.
By contrast, studies have shown men’s hearts become more constricted than women’s during physical stress, such as exercise.
In the US study, 17 healthy men and women had their heart rate, blood pressure and coronary vascular conductance – blood flow through the heart – measured while at rest. They were then tested while doing three minutes of mental arithmetic.
Then, to increase the stress load, researchers badgered the volunteers and urged them to hurry during the maths. Their hearts were then tested again.
During the arithmetic task, all volunteers showed a rise in heart rate and blood pressure, regardless of sex.
However, while the men showed an increase in heart blood flow under stress, the women showed no such change.
This difference could potentially predispose women to heart problems while under stress, said study leader, Dr Chester Ray, of Penn State College of Medicine.
He said the results came as a surprise, since previous studies men have significantly less blood flow than women during the physical stress of exercise, and could explain why women tend to have more heart troubles after stressful events, such as losing a spouse.
‘Stress reduction is important for anyone, regardless of gender, but this study shines a light on how stress differently affects the hearts of women, potentially putting them at greater risk of a coronary event’
He said the findings also reemphasise the importance of mental stress in affecting health.
Dr Ray added: ‘Stress reduction is important for anyone, regardless of gender, but this study shines a light on how stress differently affects the hearts of women, potentially putting them at greater risk of a coronary event.’
He said further research could discern the mechanism behind the difference, leading to more targeted treatments and prevention efforts for women at risk of coronary artery disease.
The findings were due to be discussed at the meeting Experimental Biology 2012, at the San Diego Convention Centre.