Stress and Cardiovascular Health: A Connection?
Emerging research suggests that the level of glucocorticoids, a type of steroid hormone that the body secretes in response to stress, in an individual’s hair could signal a higher likelihood of future cardiovascular diseases (CVD).
This new study is being presented at this year’s European Congress on Obesity (ECO) in Dublin, Ireland.
Dr. Eline van der Valk, the lead author from Erasmus University Medical Center Rotterdam in the Netherlands, underlines the significance of chronic stress as a determinant of overall health.
According to the study’s findings, individuals with elevated long-term hair glucocorticoid levels are substantially more prone to developing heart and circulatory diseases.
Stress Hormones in Hair: A Biomarker for Health Risks?
Long-term scalp hair cortisol (an active form) and cortisone (an inactive form) levels are increasingly recognized as biomarkers that reflect cumulative exposure to glucocorticoids over several months.
These stress hormones are known to influence the body’s metabolism and fat distribution. However, there’s limited data on how these stress hormone levels affect long-term CVD outcomes.
In a bid to expand understanding, researchers analyzed cortisol and cortisone levels in 6,341 hair samples from adult men and women (18 years and above).
All participants were enrolled in Lifelines—a vast multi-generational study involving over 167,000 participants from the northern population of the Netherlands.
Understanding the Study
Participants’ hair samples were tested, and they were monitored for 5-7 years on average.
The purpose was to assess the long-term association between cortisol and cortisone levels and incident CVD. During this period, 133 CVD events were reported.
The researchers made adjustments for factors known to increase CVD risk, including age, sex, waist circumference, smoking, blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.
Unraveling the Findings
The research indicated that individuals with higher long-term cortisone levels were twice as likely to experience a cardiovascular event like a stroke or heart attack.
This likelihood rose to over three times for those aged 57 years or younger.
Interestingly, for the older half of CVD cases (57 years and older), hair cortisone and cortisol levels were not strongly associated with incident CVD.
Future Implications and Limitations
According to Professor Elisabeth van Rossum, the principal investigator of the study, the hope is that hair analysis might eventually serve as a helpful clinical tool.
This method could potentially identify individuals at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Future interventions could target the impact of stress hormones in the body as a treatment strategy.
Despite the compelling findings, the authors recognize several limitations in their study.
It’s important to note that the study is observational and doesn’t establish stress as a cause of CVD, merely that the two are correlated.
The majority of the participants identified as white and resided in a specific area of the Netherlands, which could limit the generalizability of the findings to other populations.
Furthermore, despite adjusting for age, sex, waist circumference, smoking, blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, there could be other unmeasured factors influencing the results.
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