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Anxiety tied to elevated stroke risk

January 2, 2014

Anxiety has long been associated with a variety of health issues, and a new study from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine suggests that feelings of anxiety are tied to an increased risk of stroke. Additionally, those who already have heart problems are three times more likely to die if they have both anxiety and depression, according to findings published in the journal Stroke.

To assess the role anxiety has in healthy aging, researchers followed a group of more than 6,000 people over the course of 22 years. In addition to taking blood samples and performing medical examinations, scientists also gave participants psychological questionnaires in an effort to measure their levels of anxiety and depression. Researchers say the relationship between chronic anxiety and an elevated stroke risk is largely due to the fact that it increases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which can raise blood pressure to unhealthy levels.

"Everyone has some anxiety now and then. But when it's elevated and/or chronic, it may have an effect on your vasculature years down the road," said study leader Dr. Maya Lambiase.

The results are particularly relevant given that stroke is among the leading causes of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, approximately 795,000 Americans have a stroke, and these occurrences are the leading cause of long-term disability. 

In addition to lowering anxiety levels, there are a variety of ways for older adults to reduce their risk of stroke. According to the Mayo Clinic, the most effective route is to manage high blood pressure by exercising regularly and eating a diet low in sodium. Experts also recommend adding potassium to one's diet.