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What Do Vacations, Laughter and Pets Have In Common?

Your Heart and Its Response to Relaxation and Stress

Summertime and the living is easy . . . but not for workaholics! If you are among those folks who, for one reason or another, just can't seem to get away for an extended period of time, you may want to stop the excuses and take time to relax.

Research shows that vacation time may be more important than you think. In fact, one study, which tracked 12,000 middle-age men over nine years, found that men who took at least one vacation annually were nearly 30 percent less likely to die from heart-related causes than those who maintained a year-round work schedule.

Additional research, based on the Framingham Heart Study, found that women who vacationed only once or less every six years were over seven times more likely to have a heart attack or develop heart disease than those who enjoyed two vacations a year.

But don't wait for a vacation to help your heart relax. De-stressing may be just a cat or dog away! Research conducted at the University of Buffalo studied 48 stockbrokers who were all diagnosed with high blood pressure and taking the same hypertensive medication for the condition. A dog or cat was given to half of the group, while the other 24 people had no pets. The study found that, when each of the individuals experienced stress, the pet owners maintained lower blood pressure levels than those without pets.

If you are allergic to or just not into pets, don't despair. Have a good laugh instead! A study from the University of Maryland Medical Center found that people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh or respond with humor to life's daily occurrences compared to people without heart disease.

Relaxing for Good Health

While more data is needed to prove that stress reducers like taking time off, petting your cat or having a good belly laugh can prevent heart disease, there is plenty of research that supports relaxation as a benefit for overall health.

Murray Mittleman, MD "Finding ways to relax and enjoy life may have an indirect benefit for the heart and cardiovascular health by discouraging the occurrence of metabolic syndrome," said Murray A. Mittleman, MD, PH, Director of BIDMC's Cardiovascular Epidemiology Research Unit. " Metabolic syndrome is characterized by risk factors that include high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, abdominal obesity and insulin resistance. And it may be that people who are relaxed and happy are more likely to be active and avoid unhealthy habits like overeating and smoking."

So if feeling good can encourage us to live healthier lifestyles, does that mean that getting "stressed out" can send us down the path to unhealthy habits and heart problems? How do we define stress and how does it affect the heart?

Stress is a person's response to mental, emotional, chemical, environmental or physical situations, whether real or imagined. Here's how it works, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). A stressful situation elicits the "fight or flight" response from your body, in which the hormone adrenaline is released to prepare you to react quickly to danger. Your heartbeat and breathing accelerate and your blood pressure spikes. If you live with chronic stress, your body can stay in high gear for an extended period of time.

Gut Feelings About the Heart

Emotional-response stress is generally what we think of in connection with heart disease, as in "It's no wonder he had a heart attack, driving a cab in New York City for 20 years." Many of us, including a number of doctors, have a gut feeling that severe or long-term emotional stress is bad for your heart, but scientific evidence proving this is not clear.

While "chronic stress that causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure may damage artery walls," according to the AHA, "Chronic stress does not cause high blood pressure. The exact causes of high blood pressure are unknown."

And yet, tantalizing studies suggesting a correlation between emotional stress and heart disease continue to pile up.

Findings from a British study conducted at the University College London found that stressed workers may be up to 68 percent more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease than other workers.

The research involved more than 10,000 civil servants between the ages of 35 and 55. Four times over a 14-year period, the researchers questioned the workers about whether they felt stress on the job and measured each person's cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood pressure and cholesterol. The British study also noted a link between stress and poor health choices such as lack of exercise, smoking and an unhealthy diet.

Can Anger Trigger Heart Attack?

Another study, led by Mittleman, was based on interviews with 1,623 patients who had recently experienced heart attacks. This study found that episodes of anger can have the potential to trigger a heart attack, although aspirin may reduce this risk. "More research in the area is needed to help us better understand how certain emotional circumstances can cause acute cardiovascular events," said Mittleman. "Further study may enable us to define preventive strategies aimed at severing the link between external stressors and their potential affect on the heart," according to Mittleman.

Until more research is conducted, the best advice is to pursue a lifestyle that promotes optimal cardiovascular health through exercise. We can't always avoid all forms of emotional stress, but if you are at risk for heart disease, take steps to relax and enjoy time off, find ways to control your response to stress and reduce any cardiac risk factors that you may have.

In the meantime, activities like walking the dog, watching Comedy Central or lazing on the beach can't hurt!

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted June 2011

Contact Information

CardioVascular Institute at
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215