WEDNESDAY, April 29, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Middle-aged and older women who experience a life-threatening illness or the death of a loved one may face a 65 percent increased risk of heart attack, a new study suggests.
And having a history of money problems might double the heart attack risk, the study authors added.
Such traumatic events can increase a woman's stress levels to the point where her heart health may be harmed, the researchers explained.
"Our results suggest that even a single traumatic life event that could have occurred in the distant or recent past might be akin to some elements of post-traumatic stress conditions that have negative heart impact, and thus strengthens the case for routine assessment of psychological factors as part of heart attack risk assessment in women," said lead researcher Dr. Michelle Albert. She is a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
However, the study only found an association between life traumas and heart risks, and did not show that adversity caused the heart attacks.
Using data from the long-term national study known as the Women's Health Study, the researchers compared 267 U.S. women with a history of heart attacks to 281 women without a history of heart attacks who were similar in age and smoking status.
"Among these women, cumulative negative life events, such as unemployment or underemployment, serious illness or accident, financial problems or the death of someone close, are associated with higher risk of heart attack in middle-aged and older women who have a household annual income of less than $50,000," Albert said.
Women who reported serious financial problems had more than a twofold increase in risk of heart attack, compared with those who did not report serious financial problems, she said.
"Traumatic life events -- such as the death of a child, life-threatening illness or accident to self or someone close, or being the victim of physical attack -- were associated with nearly a 70 percent increase in heart attack risk," Albert said. "As a traumatic life event, life-threatening illness or accident to a spouse or child was related to a 62 percent increased risk of heart attack."
Albert said it isn't clear whether women are more vulnerable to stress, or if stress is more common in women and people with less social support.
The findings were published April 29 in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcome.
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said doctors "are aware that stress has a greater impact on women's hearts than men's."
Stress increases inflammation and cortisol levels, which are associated with buildup of plaque in the arteries, raising the risk for heart attacks, she explained.
"It is important to understand that we don't have control over certain things in our lives like the traumatic events these researchers looked at," Steinbaum said. "But women need to understand that with exorbitant amounts of life stress, we have to figure out a way of managing it so that stress hormones don't lead to an increased risk of heart attack."
Steinbaum recommends keeping stress at bay by using stress management techniques, such as mediation, yoga, mindfulness or exercise.
In addition, she said having a support network of friends and family is vital to helping cope with stressful events. "That's just as important as getting the blood pressure down," she said.
Visit the American Heart Association for more on stress management.