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Stress raises risk of heart death

13th September 2010

Researchers in the Netherlands say that stress really is bad for your heart, citing a recent study which showed a clear link between high levels of stress hormone in the urine and death from cardiovascular disease.

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Study participants with the highest levels of the hormone cortisol in their urine were five times as likely to die from cardiovascular disease, compared with the people who had the lowest cortisol levels.

The link was true both for people who already had heart disease when they took part in the study, and for those who did not.

Lead author Nicole Vogelzangs, of VU University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, said her study was the first to test the hypothesis that elevated stress hormones predict heart disease death directly.

Earlier research has already suggested such a link.

Vogelzangs said her team was surprised to find that the association was so strong.

Researchers found that cortisol levels in older adults were clearly predictive of death from cardiovascular causes, but were not predictive of other causes of death.

Published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, the study measured cortisol levels over a 24-hour period in urine samples.

It measured the hormone in 861 participants aged 65 and older, and followed them for an average of about six years after the first 24-hour cortisol readings were taken.

A total of 183 participants died during the six-year period of the study, and death certificates were examined to determine the cause of death.

Urinary cortisol was found to be a strong predictor for death from heart attack and stroke, although it did not predict death from non-cardiovascular causes.

The risk of dying from cardiovascular disease was five times as great in the third of participants with the highest cortisollevels, compared with the third with the lowest levels.

The findings come just days after a separate team of researchers reported that high levels of the hormone in hair samples predict heart attack risk.

Cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands and is produced in high levels as part of the body’s "fight or flight" response to stressful events.

It is believed to play a role in a wide range of diseases, including diabetes, osteoporosis and heart disease, if produced over a long period of time.

Blood measurements of the hormone show only a snapshot of stress at the moment, and its presence may even be triggered by the act of having blood taken.

Canadian researchers found earlier this month that cortisol levels in hair samples were useful as a marker of chronic stress.

Hair cortisol levels were a more important predictor of heart attack risk than established risk factors like high blood pressure and cholesterol, the study found.

Both teams have called for further research to explore how cortisol levels could be use in clinical practice as a predictor of cardiovascular disease risk.




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