Chronic stress, not diet, in-laws or lack of exercise, increases stroke risk, claims new study

If you're worried your diet or lack of exercise or your family members will play a role in you having a stroke, think again.

A new study claims high stress and depression are linked to increased stroke risk.

The study, published by the American Heart Association, reports higher levels of stress, hostility and depressive symptoms are tied to a significant increase risk of stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) in middle-age and older adults.

According to the AHA site, a TIA is a stroke prompted by a temporary blockage of blood to the brain. The study assessed how psychological elements may influence risk for chronic heart disease.

The AHA site states the research effort involved 6,700 adults (53 percent women), ages 45 to 84, who completed questionnaires about chronic stress, depressive symptoms, anger and hostility over a two-year period. Of those participating 38.5 percent were white, 27.8 percent were African-American, 11.8 percent were Chinese and 21.9 percent were Hispanic. All, states the release on the study, were free of cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the research effort.

Of those scoring high on the psychological test 85 percent were likely to have a stroke or TIA due to high depressive symptom. The study notes that none of the increased risk is tied to anger.

"There's such a focus on traditional risk factors - cholesterol levels, blood pressure, smoking and so forth - and those are all very important, but studies like this one show that psychological characteristics are equally important," said Susan Everson-Rose, Ph.D., M.P.H., study lead author and associate professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

"Given our aging population, it's important to consider these other factors that might play a role in disease risk. Stroke is a disease of the elderly predominantly, and so learning more about things that can influence risk for stroke as people age is important," added Everson-Rose.

The study involved measuring chronic stress tied to five specific areas including personal health, health of people close to the participants, employment, finances and relationships.

"One thing we didn't assess is coping strategies," Everson-Rose said. "If someone is experiencing depressive symptoms or feeling a lot of stress or hostility, we don't know how they manage those, so it's possible that positive coping strategies could ameliorate some of these associations or effects."

"We did not inquire about coping. I would say that's one of the tasks for future studies," she added.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute funded the study.

"Patients and their health care providers should be aware that experiences of chronic stress and negative emotional states can increase risk for stroke," Everson-Rose noted.

The findings were published online in the journal Stroke.

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