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Stress raises likelihood of heart trouble

SAN FRANCISCO -- Stress does bad things to the heart. New studies have found higher rates of cardiac problems in veterans with PTSD, New Orleans residents six years after Hurricane Katrina and Greeks struggling through that country's financial turmoil.

Disasters and prolonged stress can raise "fight or flight" hormones that affect blood pressure, blood sugar and other things in ways that make heart trouble more likely, doctors say. They also provoke anger and helplessness and spur heart-harming behaviors like eating or drinking too much.

"We're starting to connect emotions with cardiovascular risk markers" and the new research adds evidence of a link, said Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. She had no role in the studies, which were discussed yesterday at an American College of Cardiology conference in San Francisco.

One involved 207,954 California and Nevada veterans ages 46 to 74 whose Veterans Affairs medical records from 2009 and 2010 showed them free of major heart disease and diabetes.

About two years later, 35 percent of those with PTSD but only 19 percent without it had developed insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes and hardening of the arteries.

Doctors also saw higher rates of metabolic syndrome, a collection of heart disease risk factors that include high body fat, cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. About 53 percent with PTSD but only 37 percent of those without it had several of these symptoms.

"Twenty or 30 years ago PTSD was a term reserved for combat veterans," said one study leader, Dr. Ramin Ebrahimi, a cardiologist at the Greater Los Angeles VA Medical Center. He added, "We have come to realize now that PTSD is actually a much more common disorder," including those who suffer trauma such as being raped, robbed at gunpoint or in a serious accident.

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