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American Heart Association

For women, financial strain and heart problems may be connected

6 Minute Read

Evidence is mounting that women who experience financial strain may be more susceptible to heart disease.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unemployment numbers to surge, threatening many people’s ability to put food on the table and access health care. The resulting financial strain adds to the burden and may pose a significant risk factor for heart disease, particularly in women.  “Existing research does suggest that women have unique life experiences and face challenges that men may not generally experience,” said Tomás Cabeza de Baca. He is a former postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco Nurture Center and a staff scientist at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).  In a study published last year, Cabeza de Baca and his colleagues found that for middle-aged and older women who work in health care, the financial strain was associated with less than ideal cardiovascular health as defined by the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7®: tobacco use, body mass index, physical activity, diet, blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes. 

It is part of a growing body of research suggesting financial stress raises the odds of heart disease in women.   For example, Harvard Medical School researchers reported women worried about losing their jobs were more likely to be obese and have higher blood pressure and cholesterol, which increases the risk for heart disease.  And a study of more than 26,000 women found that those with a history of financial troubles were twice as likely to have a heart attack. Women with household incomes less than $50,000 per year also were at greater risk.  Cabeza de Baca pointed out that since women live longer than men, on average, they may avoid retirement, so they have enough money to pay their bills.  Women who are unemployed, care for children or belong to a racial and ethnic minority may be at even greater risk, said Dr. Puja K Mehta, an associate professor in the cardiology division at Emory University. She is also the director of Women’s Translational Cardiovascular Research at the Emory Women’s Heart Center.  “We know that social determinants of health are very important,” Mehta said. Health outcomes are linked with zip code, access to health care, education, and income. “Some people can’t afford their medication.”

How does such stress raise the risk of heart disease? It affects the so-called brain-heart connection by causing dysfunction in the autonomic nervous system (which is the fight or flight response system of the body), and by increasing inflammation, which may cause atherosclerosis. When people are stressed, it’s difficult to focus on eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough sleep.  “The pathways that regulate blood pressure, heart rate, and blood flow get impacted by these psychological conditions,” Meta said. “When exposed to stress, women have more blood flow abnormalities to the heart compared to men.”  “Over time these stressors can cause problems with the heart blood vessels not working properly.” Mehta recommended that women consider the following actions to reduce stress. 

  • Talk to a doctor or psychologist. “Most of us say we need to manage stress, but we don’t necessarily have the tools or know-how to do it.” 
  • Do something you enjoy. Engage in activities such as walking, gardening, or spending time with a pet.  
  • Get the blood pumping. “Exercise is a very effective anti-depressant.” The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans confirm that regular physical activity can help relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic per week, or a combination of both.
  • Meditate. Practicing mindfulness and meditation may help you manage stress and high blood pressure, sleep better, feel more balanced and connected, and even lower heart disease risk. Meditation means different things for different people. Some people may sit quietly while others might prefer listening to music. 
  • Take a deep breath. “When you’re stressed, your heart rate and respiration go up.” “If you take some deep breaths, you’re automatically breaking that cycle.”
  • Get involved in a book club, church, or other organization. “Everybody is kind of isolated now and that adds another layer of anxiety.” “When you have a support group, friends, or a community, people do better. That’s particularly important for women who are social creatures.” 

The key is finding the stress-management technique that works best for you, Mehta said.  “There’s no one way that works for everybody. It takes work, but it’s critically important when you’re going through a lot of stress.”

Article provided by the American Heart Association

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