Monday, April 15, 2024

VCU to Study Effects of Stress on Heart Health

Outside of risk factors, like an unhealthy diet, certain mental health conditions can lead to harmful heart health. These include irregular heart rate and rhythm, increased blood pressure, inflammation and reduced blood flow to the heart. (Adobe Stock)

RICHMOND — Virginia Commonwealth University will be researching chronic psychosocial stress’ effects on heart health as part of an American Heart Association grant.

University researchers will work collaboratively with Ohio State University and the University of California-Davis for the $15 million project.

Dr. Greg Hundley, director of the Pauley Heart Center and chair of the Cardiology Division at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, said while some risk factors for heart disease include smoking, high blood pressure and diabetes, some social stressors can increase cardiovascular events.

“Stress can take many forms,” Hundley pointed out. “It can be financial stress, it can be personal stress, it can be an event or series of events that occurs in one’s life. And those stressors also promote the cardiovascular events — heart attack, strokes and heart failure.”

He noted a central question for the research is examining how something in a person’s brain can lead to poor heart health. It goes beyond examining how everyday stress affects the heart. It will also look at stress in cancer survivors who received treatments that can affect heart health.

Amy Ladd, associate director of the Pauley Heart Center, noted the research is still in its infancy, and one particular challenge is coordinating a team to accomplish the goals.

“We’ve got laboratory experts, so that people that are going to be measuring the molecular changes in patients’ blood, and animal studies in the blood,” Ladd outlined.

She added behavioral experts will also work with cancer patients to see if an exercise intervention will help reduce stress and affect heart function, and nutritionists will analyze the diets of human and animal participants to see how heart function is affected.

Fadi Salloum, professor and associate chair for Research in the Department of Medicine, said another focus will be how defects in the heart’s ability to produce energy can result in early aging. He describes how this can occur.

“The heart is an organ that’s constantly working,” Salloum emphasized. “It doesn’t get a break; it needs a lot of energy. Sometimes, those specific compartments that generate energy become defective. Could be because of inflammation, could be because of something else impacted by stress as well.”

Based on the findings of the research from all three schools, the hope is to create a better screening process aimed at preventing more serious occurrences of heart disease in all people.

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