Women who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are at greater risk of heart attacks than those who have never experienced such trauma, a new study reveals. Heart attacks and strokes were 60 percent more common in these subjects than in the general population, researchers concluded.

Approximately 50,000 women were surveyed as part of the Nurses' Health Survey 2. Roughly 80 percent of these subjects reported experiencing a highly traumatic event sometime during their lives. Of these, about half reported three or fewer symptoms of PTSD, while the remainder stated they had four or more signs of the disorder. Four symptoms is the general cut-off for a PTSD diagnosis.

Women who experienced trauma without signs of PTSD were also shown to have an increased risk of heart attack and strokes — nearly 50 percent. However, that risk was unchanged in those who experienced trauma with one to three PTSD symptoms.

Smoking and high blood pressure are believed to be responsible for half of the increased risk, according to researchers. Investigators believe the unhealthy behaviors, driven by traumatic events, could pose additional health risks to women in addition to damage done to the body by memories of the events.

"Most women experience psychological trauma at some point in the their life, but few know that there could be serious long-term repercussions for physical health. Our results provide further evidence that PTSD is not solely a mental health problem, but also increases risk of chronic disease," said Karestan Koenen of Columbia's Mailman School, senior author on the study.

"The medical system needs to stop treating the mind and the body as if they are separate. Patients need access to integrated mental and physical health care," Koenen told the press.

Researchers stated their belief that women who have suffered traumatic events in their lives should talk to their doctors about how they can lower their risk of cardiovascular disease, even if they have not experienced PTSD. Many health care professionals recommend changes in diet and exercise routines to promote heart health, along with drugs, including aspirin. Future research will examine if treating PTSD can lower risk of heart disease.

Women are twice as likely as men to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and women with cardiovascular disease are more likely than men to be hospitalized and die from the conditions. These facts make it vital to study the connection between PTSD and cardiovascular disease, researchers stated.

Analysis of the role of PTSD on raising risk for heart disease and stroke in women was profiled in Circulation, a journal published by the American Heart Association.

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