Middle-aged men who worry more than their peers are at greater risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiometabolic-related health issues, according to new research. Anecdotal evidence and previous studies seem to support the idea of reducing stress to attain better health, but the researchers behind this latest study zeroed in on the cardiovascular health consequences of worrying, especially in men of a certain age.
BACKGROUND: WORRY SEEMS TO BE THE HARDEST WORD
“Neuroticism is a personality trait characterized by a tendency to interpret situations as threatening, stressful and/or overwhelming,” said Lewina Lee, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Boston School of Medicine in the press release announcing the study. “Individuals with high levels of neuroticism are prone to experience negative emotions – such as fear, anxiety, sadness and anger – more intensely and more frequently.”
However, says Lee, worrying and being neurotic are two different things.
“Worry refers to our attempts at problem-solving around an issue whose future outcome is uncertain and potentially positive or negative,” explained Lee. “Worry can be adaptive, for example, when it leads us to constructive solutions. However, worry can also be unhealthy, especially when it becomes uncontrollable and interferes with our day-to-day functioning.”
As such, Lee and colleagues set out to determine how worrying may affect health, particularly in middle-aged men.
ANALYSIS: WORRY AND CARDIOMETABOLIC DISEASE SEEMINGLY LINKED
To conduct their research, which is published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the team looked at the results from a Normative Aging Study conducted by the U.S. Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic starting way back in 1961. In all, Lee and associates studied information from 1,561 men, including veterans and non-veterans, who were an average age of 53 by the year 1975.
According to the release, “the men completed baseline assessments of neuroticism and worry and did not have cardiovascular disease or cancer at that time.”
The team also used a personality inventory assessed neuroticism on a scale of 0–9, along with a “worry assessment tool” that asked each study participant how often they worried about a list of 20 items, ranking their level of worry from 0 (never worry) to 4 (always worry).
After their initial assessment, the participants underwent blood tests and physical exams every 3-5 years, with the final tests performed in 2015. These included collecting data on blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity as well as chemical markers of inflammation.
After a close look at these figures, the researchers found the following:
- Between ages 33 to 65, the average number of cardiometabolic high-risk factors increased by about one per decade, averaging 3.8 risk factors by age 65, followed by a slower increase per decade after age 65.
- At all ages, participants with higher levels of neuroticism had a greater number of high-risk cardiometabolic factors.
- Higher neuroticism was associated with a 13% higher likelihood of having six or more cardiometabolic disease risk factors, after adjusting for demographic characteristics (such as income and education) and family history of heart disease.
- Higher worry levels were associated with a 10% higher likelihood of having six or more cardiometabolic disease risk factors after adjusting for demographic characteristics.
“Having six or more high-risk cardiometabolic markers suggests that an individual is very likely to develop or has already developed cardiometabolic disease,” explained Lee. “We found that cardiometabolic disease risk increased as men aged, from their 30s into their 80s, irrespective of anxiety levels, while men who had higher levels of anxiety and worry consistently had a higher likelihood of developing cardiometabolic disease over time than those with lower levels of anxiety or worry.”
OUTLOOK: NOW I’M WORRIED ABOUT WORRYING
The researchers behind the study note that they can’t state with certainty that treating a patient’s worry or anxiety will improve this situation but suggest that “anxious and worry-prone individuals should pay greater attention to their cardiometabolic health.”
“For example,” said Lee, “by having routine health check-ups and being proactive in managing their cardiometabolic disease risk levels (such as taking medications for high blood pressure and maintaining a healthy weight), they may be able to decrease their likelihood of developing cardiometabolic disease.”
The researchers also note that it is unclear if these results are indicative of the general public since the study participants were all male and nearly all white, so they recommend more research to adjust for these factors, including gender, race, and age.
“It would be important for future studies to evaluate if these associations exist among women, people from diverse racial and ethnic groups, and in more socioeconomically varying samples,” concluded Lee, “and to consider how anxiety may relate to the development of cardiometabolic risk in much younger individuals than those in our study.”
Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter: @plain_fiction