Emotional upheaval is more likely to impose a heavier burden on women's hearts than men's, says a study.
These findings show that coronary (heart related) blood flow actually increases in men during mental stress, but remains unchanged in women, explaining why they could be more susceptible to adverse cardiac events.
Charity L. Sauder, Alison E. Thompson, Terrell Myers and Chester A. Ray, from Penn State College of Medicine, investigated the effects of mental stress on blood flow through the heart, said a university statement.
They recruited a group of healthy adults, both men and women. Each volunteer had his or her heart rate and blood pressure measured at rest, as well as coronary vascular conductance, a Doppler ultrasound measure of blood flow through the heart.
These volunteers then underwent the same tests while participating in three minutes of mental arithmetic, in which the researchers had them sequentially subtract 7 starting with a random number.
To increase the stress load, researchers badgered the volunteers during the task, urging them to hurry up or telling them they were wrong even when they gave the correct number. At the end of the task, they underwent the same three heart function tests again.
Results showed that at rest, men and women showed little differences between the three tests. During the mental arithmetic task, all the volunteers showed an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, regardless of sex.
However, while the men showed an increase in coronary vascular conductance under stress, the women showed no change.
This differing characteristic could potentially predispose women to heart problems while under stress, said study leader Chester Ray.
"Stress reduction is important for anyone, regardless of gender," he explained, "but this study shines a light on how stress differently affects the hearts of women, potentially putting them at greater risk of a coronary event," added Ray.
These findings were presented at Experimental Biology 2012, at the San Diego Convention Centre.