DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It's well-known that a bad diet can contribute to heart disease, right? Well, now there's increasing evidence that your emotional health can drive the risk of heart attacks and strokes, as well. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on what scientists have learned from a new study of Swedish siblings.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Our bodies are equipped with sophisticated systems to handle stress. And the most common one you've probably heard of, the fight-or-flight response. Researcher Simon Bacon of Concordia University says we've all experienced it.
SIMON BACON: You can imagine you're walking down the street, and someone jumps out in front of you and gives you a scare. You have that sort of immediate activation.
AUBREY: Your heart rate increases. Your blood pressure goes up. And in the short-term, this is good. It gives you what you need to run away. But for some people, these fight-or-flight reactions begin to happen all the time, even when there's no imminent threat.
BACON: The problem is, is when people have stress disorders, these systems are being activated at all the wrong times. Quite often, with things like PTSD, for example, you can get these very exaggerated stress responses just thinking about something that happened.
AUBREY: This can take its toll on your mental health and your physical health, driving up the risk of heart attacks and other types of heart disease. The latest evidence comes from a study of tens of thousands of siblings in Sweden. Here's researcher Unnur Valdimarsdottir.
UNNUR VALDIMARSDOTTIR: In the Nordic countries and in Sweden, we have these registers where we can follow the total population.
AUBREY: Now, using these registries, Valdimarsdottir and her colleagues identified about 130,000 people who'd been diagnosed with a stress disorder. Many of them had acute stress following a traumatic event such as the death of a loved one or a violent episode. Then they identified about 170,000 of their brothers and sisters who did not have stress disorders. Then they compared the risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks, strokes, cardiac arrest and blood clots.
VALDIMARSDOTTIR: We saw over 60 percent increased risk of having any cardiovascular events.
AUBREY: Concordia's Simon Bacon says it's a wakeup call to people who struggle with stress but don't reach out for help. Practices such as mindfulness meditation and exercise can help tamp down stress. But Bacon says stress disorders are serious.
BACON: If you have a lot of chronic stress in your life, go see a health care professional because these things really disrupt your life.
AUBREY: And put your health at risk. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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