An increase in risk of Heart Attack and Stroke may now be connected with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in women. A new study, published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, has found that women with four or more symptoms of PTSD had a 60% higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease than women who hadn’t experienced traumatic events.
Defined as mental health condition, PTSD is triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia and severe anxiety. June 27 marks the National PTSD Awareness Day.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs around 8 million Americans are affected each year. Referred to as “invisible wound of war”, this disorder has become alarming more common now since the US-led wars of Afghanistan and Iraq.
To be noted, however, is that women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD.
Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health examined about 50,000 patients over the span of 20 years. They evaluated heart disease and used a questionnaire to estimate traumatic events and PTSD symptoms.
Women with no PTSD symptoms but who reported traumatic events had a 45 percent higher risk of heart disease.
While PTSD is most commonly associated with war veterans, CBS News contributor Dr. Tara Narula, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told “CBS This Morning” that’s not always the case.
“It comes with any sort of exposure to death or injury or sexual assault,” she said. “So things like a motor vehicle accident, a natural disaster, a life-threatening illness, hospitalization in the intensive care unit, sexual assault, or physical injury — all of those can lead to PTSD.”
Narula explained that even though other risk factors such as obesity, lack of exercise, diabetes, cigarette smoking, and high blood pressure can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, the connection to PTSD is indisputable regardless. “In fact, those unhealthy lifestyles accounted for less than 50 percent of the increase that we saw,” she said.
Experts say the study has dropped spotlight on a exciting new link between the mind and the heart.
“In PTSD unfortunately what happens is that you have flashbacks,” Narula said. “You’re reliving the event over and over again. It’s like you can’t forget it.”
That results in a hyper-aroused state, she explained, so feelings of danger are always present. “What that does is you’re turning the stress response on in your body over and over again for months, weeks, or years,” she said. “So you’re increasing your heart rate, increasing your blood pressure, causing disregulation of the stress response system and the stress hormones, and you’re increasing inflammatory markers. All of that can cause constriction of blood vessels and clots to form in blood vessels.”
“PTSD is generally considered a psychological problem, but the take-home message from our findings is that it also has a profound impact on physical health, especially cardiovascular risk,” the study’s lead author Jennifer Sumner, an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said in a statement. “This is not exclusively a mental problem — it’s a potentially deadly problem of the body as well.”