Discover the link between negative emotions and heart disease

It’s the old notion that negative emotions, intense stresses and vital crises, such as those that occur as the loss of a loved one, separation, job loss, retirement etc., influence decisively the health. In turn, several surveys have shown that feelings like anxiety, depression and anger increase the risk of heart disease and stroke (STROKE, stroke), suggesting a narrow mind-body relationship. So far, however, there were no experimental evidence that could clarify the mechanisms by which stress and regulation of emotions can affect the cardiovascular functioning.

Recent results of research published in the journal Biological Psychiatry cast a new light on the subject. Scientists investigated the responses of the organism of 157 adults, men and women, from 30 to 54 years, who were asked to control their emotional reactions when exposed to unpleasant figures. During the exhibition the participants had their brain activity measures by means of functional image analysis. The region of the brain that controls these reactions is the same that controls visceral functions involved in regulating the immune system (called the prefrontal cortex).

The immune system, to activate inflammatory responses, contributes decisively to the development of atherosclerosis and its consequences, including cardiovascular disease and stroke. Inflammation, in turn, is highly associated with affective disorders, emotional adjustment features.

The researchers measured the thickness of the walls of the carotid artery with ultrasonography in order to assess the degree of atherosclerosis in participants. The swelling was measured by the determination of Interleukin-6 in the blood, a pro-inflammatory substance produced by the immune system that is associated with a higher risk of heart disease. This substance is also increased with the higher activity of neurons in the prefrontal cortex.

The interpretation of the data obtained in the experiment indicated that the major activity of the prefrontal cortex, produced by the attempt of emotional control vis-à-vis the adverse situation, was associated with higher levels of atherosclerosis and Interleukin-6, which led the researchers to conclude that the cognitive control of emotions triggers an activation of the inflammatory response by major activity of prefrontal cortex, producing atherosclerosis and affecting the cardiovascular system.

These results, as well as contribute to a greater understanding of the mind-body relationship, can serve, in the future, support for producing potential preventive actions of cardiovascular disease.