With many people in the Boston now grappling with post traumatic stress disorder after the marathon bombings, a new study suggests that the condition is associated with an increased heart disease risk down the road.
A growing body of research has found that those currently suffering from chronic panic attacks, flashbacks, and sleeplessness related to a previous trauma—all signs of PTSD—have higher rates of heart problems. But the new research, funded by the National Heart Blood and Lung Institute, was designed to see whether PTSD does long term damage to the heart that manifests itself years later.
The Emory University researchers recruited volunteers from a database of male twins who served in the Vietnam War where one twin in the pair had PTSD at some point after the war while the other twin did not. The researchers found that those who had PTSD were more than twice as likely to have developed heart disease during the 13 year study than their twin who never had PTSD.
Nearly 23 percent of the PTSD sufferers had a heart attack, hospitalization for a blocked artery, or signs of heart disease on imaging tests compared to 9 percent of those who never had PTSD.
“Our results were similar whether we were comparing fraternal or identical twins, which suggests that genetic factors don’t really play much of a role in this connection,” said study author Dr. Viola Vaccarino, an epidemiologist and internist at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. The study didn’t include women, so it’s not known whether they would experience the same increase in heart risks associated with PTSD.
Researchers still aren’t certain how PTSD would lead to heart problems but it’s likely due to chronically high levels of stress hormones that increase blood pressure and pulse and may lead to artery damage and heart arrhythmias over time.
While Vaccarino does not think those with PTSD need to have extra heart screenings, she emphasized that they should be vigilant about having regular physicals with their primary care physician to assess heart disease risks like high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol and to keep these at healthy levels with medications if necessary.
“They should also think about ways of reducing stress using breathing exercises and meditation to calm their heart rate,” she said. “Engaging in regular physical activity is also beneficial for both their heart and their mind.”