A new long-term study suggests that the more anxiety a person has, the greater the risk for stroke. The research, published in the journal Stroke, is one of the first to show a link between the two conditions.
The study revealed that participants who suffered the most anxiety had a 33 percent higher risk for stroke compared to those with the lowest anxiety levels.
The study was led by Maya Lambiase, Ph.D., of the department of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The researchers reviewed the data of more than 6,000 people aged 25 to 74 who were enrolled in the first U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which started in the early 1970s.
The participants underwent interviews and medical tests and filled out questionnaires to assess their levels of anxiety and depression. Over the next 22 years, researchers used hospital or nursing home records and death certificates to keep track of strokes among the participants.
The researchers found that even after taking into account other factors, even modest increases in anxiety were associated with greater odds of having a stroke.
“Everyone has some anxiety now and then. But when it’s elevated and/or chronic, it may have an effect on your vasculature [blood vessel system] years down the road,” Lambiase said.
It’s still unclear whether anxiety itself increases the risk of stroke, or if the rise is due to the behaviors these people exhibit. For example, those who suffer with high anxiety are more likely to smoke and be physically inactive, the researchers noted.
Furthermore, higher stress hormone levels, heart rate or blood pressure could also come into play, said Lambiase.
Although the study found an association between higher anxiety levels and increased risk of stroke, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
“We know that a little bit of anxiety is a good thing, but when anxiety becomes excessive, it takes a toll on the body and needs to be treated,” said Dr. Scott Krakower, the assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y.
Krakower noted that there have been studies that link stroke with depression, but the effects of anxiety haven’t been studied in depth. He noted that more studies are needed to confirm the association or discredit it.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems, and a lot more people have anxiety than depression, Krakower said. “And it’s often overlooked,” he added.