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Stress Management May Reduce Risk of A Second Heart Attack

May 27, 2016

About 610,000 Americans will die of heart disease every year. Coronary heart disease, which causes plaque buildup that can lead to a heart attack, is responsible for 370,000 of these deaths each year.

Heart disease is the number one killer in the U.S., but a recent study suggests that there’s one way to increase survivorship after a heart attack: stress management.

The study, conducted by Duke University researchers, involved 151 heart patients between the ages of 36 to 84. Participants were put into two control groups: one group received three months of cardiac rehabilitation that included exercise, a heart-healthy diet and drugs to manage cholesterol and high blood pressure, while the other group underwent rehab and attended weekly, 90-minute group stress management sessions that included cognitive therapy, muscle relaxation and other stress management techniques for relaxing, coping with and reducing stress.

Researchers tracked patients for three years and found noticeable differences between the two groups. Heart attack, stroke, ongoing chest pain and death occurred in only 18 percent of patients who received stress management along with cardiac rehabilitation, while these conditions occurred in 33 percent of patients who received cardiac rehab alone. In addition to exercise, drugs and dietary help, cardiac rehab programs can include efforts to reduce cardiac symptoms and improve overall health, patient education and counseling. Both groups had better outcomes than a control group who did not undergo rehab or stress management therapy — 47 percent of people in this group either died or experienced heart issues again after their initial cardiac incident.

Along with lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and smoking, stress can have a negative impact on your overall health. If you don’t manage it, it puts added pressure and tension on your body and can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, artery damage and an irregular heartbeat. James Blumenthal, the study’s author and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, said that only 20 to 30 percent of heart patients eligible for cardiac rehab participate in stress management programs, mostly due to cost, lack of access or because they aren’t referred by their doctor.

“Over the past 20 to 30 years, there has been an accumulation of evidence that stress is associated with worse health outcomes,” Blumenthal said in a news release. “If you ask patients what was responsible for their heart attacks, most patients will indicate that stress was a contributing factor.”

Experts know that supervised exercise programs, a key part of cardiac rehab, are beneficial for patients with coronary artery disease. However, the study shows that stress management can be very effective, as well. More studies need to be done to fully understand the benefits of stress management for the heart, but it’s clear that added stress and tension isn’t good for your overall health. If you’ve recently had a heart attack or heart surgery, talk to your doctor about cardiac rehabilitation and whether you could benefit from stress management therapy, as well. It may involve extra time, but it’s worth to lower your risk of another heart attack.