You can worry yourself into facing a greater risk of heart disease and stroke. Particularly if you’re a middle-aged man, according to a new study.
Middle-aged men who worry more or are prone to feeling overwhelmed, compared to those with lower levels of worry and anxiety, developed more high-risk factors for heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes earlier in life, according to a published study in Journal of the American Heart Association Report. The findings also raise the possibility that treating anxiety disorders may lower cardiometabolic disease risk.
A group of researchers from Boston University School of Medicine performed a study that followed men in the U.S. for over 4 decades. The Boston researchers said in the study that men prone to worry and anxiety might need to monitor their cardiometabolic disease risk factors, which include maintaining healthy weight and taking medications to control blood pressure and cholesterol.
“While the participants were primarily white men, our findings indicate higher levels of anxiousness or worry among men are linked to biological processes that may give rise to heart disease and metabolic conditions,” Lewina Lee, Ph.D., lead author of the study and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, said in a news release. Lee, who is also an investigator and clinical psychologist at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, in Boston added, “These associations may be present much earlier in life than is commonly appreciated – potentially during childhood or young adulthood”.
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The researchers tracked the relationship between anxiety and cardiometabolic disease risk factors over a span of forty years. They analyzed data obtained from participants in the Normative Aging Study, a longitudinal study looking at the aging processes in men, at the U.S. Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic in Boston.
The researchers looked at 1,561 men (97% white) both veterans and non-veterans, who had no history of cardiovascular disease or cancer at the time and who were average age of 53 years in 1975. The participants completed tests to provide baseline assessments of neuroticism and worry.
Lee explained in the release, “Neuroticism is a personality trait characterized by a tendency to interpret situations as threatening, stressful and/or overwhelming. Individuals with high levels of neuroticism are prone to experience negative emotions – such as fear, anxiety, sadness and anger – more intensely and more frequently”.
Lee further explained in the release, “Worry refers to our attempts at problem-solving around an issue whose future outcome is uncertain and potentially positive or negative. Worry can be adaptive, for example, when it leads us to constructive solutions. However, worry can also be unhealthy, especially when it becomes uncontrollable and interferes with our day-to-day functioning.”
Every three to five years, the participants had physical exams with blood tests until they either died or dropped out of the study. The research team used data collected through 2015.
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The researchers measured seven cardiometabolic risk factors collected during the follow-up visits which included systolic and diastolic blood pressure (top number and bottom number respectively), triglycerides, fasting blood sugar levels, total cholesterol, obesity (assessed by body mass index) and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), which is a marker of inflammation.
Each participant was given a risk factor count score comprised of one point for each of the seven risk factors classified as high-risk.
The researchers then categorized the men on whether they did or did not develop six or more high-risk factors during the follow-up periods.
According to Lee, an individual who has six or more high-risk cardiometabolic markers suggests the person is very likely to develop or has already developed cardiometabolic disease.
The researchers found participants with higher levels of neuroticism at all ages had higher numbers of high-risk cardiometabolic factors. Higher neuroticism was also associated with a 13% higher chance of having six or more risk factors for cardiometabolic disease while higher levels of worry were associated with a 10% risk, according to the published report.
The study authors also said the average number of cardiometabolic high-risk factors increased by about one per decade, between the ages 33 to 65, averaging 3.8 risk factors by age 65. This was followed by a slower increase per decade after age 65.
Lee said in the release, “We found that cardiometabolic disease risk increased as men aged, from their 30s into their 80s, irrespective of anxiety levels, while men who had higher levels of anxiety and worry consistently had a higher likelihood of developing cardiometabolic disease over time than those with lower levels of anxiety or worry.”
The lead author of the study also said that although the researchers did not know whether treatment of anxiety and worry may lower one’s cardiometabolic risk, they did suggest that individuals who are prone to anxiety and worry should pay more attention to their cardiometabolic health.
Lee suggested those individuals get routine health examinations and be proactive with managing high blood pressure through medications and maintaining a healthy weight.
The researchers did note the study primarily focused on white men and future studies need to evaluate if these associations also exist among diverse ethnic and racial groups and women. The study authors noted that they did not have data on whether participants had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder
Health experts say treatment for anxiety disorders typically includes psychotherapy or medication, or a combination of the two.