Years ago — we’re talking decades here — there were studies that supposedly showed Type A personalities were more likely to have heart disease. The studies singled out people who were outgoing, ambitious, rigidly organized, highly status-conscious, sensitive, impatient, anxious, proactive and concerned with time management.
Numerous studies have since disproven that hypothesis and, in fact, have shown the opposite to be true. Type A folks are more likely to change their lifestyles and take medications if necessary to stay well. They’re usually ahead of the pack when it comes to wellness. Nonetheless, this folklore about Type A people is still simmering in the background.
But stress is different. I can remember my mother saying, “That person is going to kill themselves because they’re so stressed.” New research published in the British Medical Journal just might show that she was right. Too much stress can lead to heart disease.
Let’s walk through the study, which took place in Sweden. They have lots of heart disease, so it’s a good place to research it. In Sweden, a largely government-funded health care system means they have great medical record-keeping. They know how many people have seen a doctor and for what conditions, what has caused people to be hospitalized and who has died from what. It’s all in one database.
They analyzed 136,000 records from 1987 to 2013 for people who had diagnoses characterized as stressful events. That’s stress with a capital S — things such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress reactions and adjustment disorders, death of a loved one, natural disasters, rape, physical violence — a whole list of things we would all agree are very stressful.
Then they compared these health records to those of the patients’ siblings, if they had any, and to a million age-matched Swedes who did not go to see their doctor for stress-related issues.
What they found was monumental. After controlling for weight, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol and a whole list of other things, big-time stress popped out as a major risk factor for a heart attack, heart failure and cardiac arrest within a one-year period following the stressful event.
The question at hand is: What shall we do about this? Having data is fine, but if we don’t do something about it, then it’s worthless.
If you know someone who has just gone through a traumatic event, talk to them. Friendship always helps. Knowing someone has your back can offer comfort. Giving feedback and advice can be so very important.
Counseling, anti-depressants and similar medications can make a huge difference in recovery if you’ve recently been through an event. Just recognizing you have something to recover from can help you move on so you don’t push that stress inside to your heart.
And finally, consider mindfulness meditation. It’s becoming more and more available through classes, apps and other web-based methods that can teach you how to calm your mind.
My spin: The mind-body connection has always been there. Recognizing it and taking preemptive action for someone who’s had stress might mean the difference between life and death. Stay well.