The higher your anxiety, the higher your risk for stroke
A new study shows that people suffering from high anxiety appear to be at a significantly higher risk for stroke.
The long-term study, published online this month in the journal Stroke, is believed to be a first-of-its-kind to demonstrate a link between anxiety and stroke.
Researchers found that study participants who had the greatest levels of anxiety had a 33 percent greater risk for stroke than those whose anxiety levels were lower.
But not everyone is convinced that the results of the study are real.
Dr. Aviva Lubin, an associate stroke director at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York who was not involved in the study, remains a “little skeptical” of the findings, pointing out that even the researchers said anxiety can also be attributed to high blood pressure, increased pulse or smoking, all of which are major factors contributing to stroke.
"It still seems a little hard to fully buy into the fact that anxiety itself is a major risk factor that we need to deal with," Lubin said.
In this regard, she said that treating anxiety itself isn’t likely going to reduce the risk of stroke. Instead, she says the focus should be on prevention by treating the risk factors for stroke, such as high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes.
For the study, led by Maya Lambiase, a cardiovascular behavioral medicine researcher in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, researchers gathered data on over 6,000 people who had enrolled in the first U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which began in the early 70s.
The people were between the ages of 25 and 74 at the time of enrollment, and all were interviewed by the researchers and also completed questionnaires designed to measure how much anxiety and depression they suffered. Medical tests were also conducted on the participants.
During the next 22 years, the research team followed the people, using records from hospitals, nursing homes, and death certificates to keep track of those who suffered strokes.
The researchers accounted for other variables as well, but despite them, they nevertheless found that those who had only modestly increased levels of anxiety were still at a higher risk of suffering a stroke.
In an American Heart Association news release, Lambaise pointed out that everyone experiences some anxiety at times, but if the anxiety is high or chronic over time, it could negatively affect one’s blood vessel system years later.
As some skeptics said, it’s still unclear if it’s the anxiety itself that boosts one’s stroke risk, or the risk is due to the behaviors of high anxiety people, as those who have high anxiety are more likely to smoke, not exercise, and otherwise exhibit behaviors known to contribute to an increased risk for stroke.
Moreover, greater anxiety frequently results in greater levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can itself be a risk factor for stroke, according to Lambiase.
While researchers did find a link between high anxiety and a higher stroke risk, they did not conclusively prove there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between the two.
SOURCE: Journal Stroke, Prospective Study of Anxiety and Incident Stroke, published online December 19, 2013 (doi: 10.1161/STROKEAHA.113.003741).