WEDNESDAY, March 23, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may have blood vessels that don't expand normally, a new study suggests.
If vessels don't widen as they should, the risk of heart attack and stroke goes up, the researchers noted.
The researchers also found that risk factors usually associated with blood vessel problems -- such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and smoking -- didn't seem to account for why people with PTSD were more likely to have blood vessels that didn't dilate properly.
The researchers suspect that stress may be to blame.
"We believe that we should try to gain a better understanding of the relationship between mental illness and cardiovascular health," said lead researcher Dr. Marlene Grenon. She's an associate professor of surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center-Surgical Services.
Better strategies to manage stress could potentially have a positive impact on heart disease, she said.
"Stress management will be one of the main focuses of our program, along with other lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise," Grenon said. "This could help not only people with PTSD but also people with all forms of chronic stress in their lives."
While the study found a link between PTSD and blood vessel health, it wasn't designed to prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
For the study, the researchers recruited 214 veterans, including 67 with PTSD. The researchers measured how well an artery in the arm of each study volunteer was able to relax and expand while a blood pressure cuff was inflated and deflated.
The researchers found that blood vessels of veterans with PTSD had a less healthy response. Their blood vessels expanded just under 6 percent, compared with 7.5 percent among the veterans without PTSD.
Other factors linked to a poorer response included increasing age, worse kidney function, high blood pressure and taking certain medications. However, after taking these factors into account, PTSD was still linked to blood vessels that were less able to dilate, the study found.
PTSD can also occur in non-veterans. It may develop as a reaction to a terrifying event, such as war, natural disasters, sexual assault and other physical violence or trauma.
People with the condition may have prolonged anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares and other life-altering symptoms.
"Post-traumatic stress disorder is estimated to impact close to 8 million men and women in the United States," said Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a professor of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Prior studies have shown that PTSD is associated with a greater risk of heart disease and fatal heart attacks, he said. But, exactly how PTSD might increase these risks hasn't been fully explained. The mechanism behind the association is probably very complex, he said.
More studies are needed to see whether impairment of blood vessel function is one of the contributing factors to the risk of heart disease in patients with PTSD, Fonarow said.
"Interventions that may effectively lower the risk of cardiovascular events need to be tested in this important patient population," he said.
The new study findings were published online March 23 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
For more information on PTSD, visit the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.