Women are more prone than men to have heart problems in response to mental stress, potentially because of gender differences in how stressful situations affect blood flow, a new study shows.
The research, presented by Penn State College of Medicine scientists at the Experimental Biology 2012 scientific sessions in San Diego this week, blood flow actually increases in men during mental stress, but shows no change in women, which may explain why females are more susceptible to adverse cardiac events when under pressure.
"Stress reduction is important for anyone, regardless of gender," said lead researcher Chester Ray, "but this study shines a light on how stress differently affects the hearts of women, potentially putting them at greater risk of a coronary event."
Coronary artery disease is a major cause of death, killing hundreds of thousands of Americans each year, with more men than women diagnosed with it. Past studies have shown men's hearts become more constricted than women's during exercise, letting less blood flow through. But women are more likely than men to have symptoms of heart trouble after emotional upsets.
For the new study, Penn State researchers examined the effects of mental stress on blood flow through the hearts of 17 healthy men and women. Each had his or her heart rate, blood pressure and blood flow measured as they underwent stressful mental arithmetic tests.
Results showed that all the volunteers showed an increase in heart rate and blood pressure during the test, but the men experienced an increase in blood flow under stress, while the women had no change. Researchers said the differences may predispose women to heart problems while under stress and after stressful events, such as losing a spouse.