The new study findings were based on medical records from nearly 137,000 Swedish adults diagnosed with stress-related mental health conditions — mainly PTSD, acute stress disorder and adjustment disorder.
Acute stress disorder is similar to PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The difference is in the timing: Acute stress disorder arises in the first month after a trauma; PTSD is diagnosed only after symptoms have lasted for a month.
The stress-disorder group was compared with over 171,000 of their siblings, and 1.3 million people from the general population.
Overall, the study found, people with stress disorders suffered a “cardiovascular event” at a rate of eight per 1,000 in the first year after the diagnosis. While that’s a fairly low figure, it was almost twice that of their siblings, and higher than the population norm.
The researchers, who were led by Huan Song, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Iceland and Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, then took into account for other factors — such as income, education and any additional mental health diagnoses. Those with stress disorders were still at risk, especially in the first year after their diagnosis.
Compared with their siblings, their odds of heart disease or stroke during that year were 64% higher, the findings showed. The greatest difference was seen with heart failure: People with stress disorders had a sevenfold higher risk than their siblings.
The report was published online April 10 in the BMJ.
It’s possible some of those heart failure cases reflect “broken-heart” syndrome, said Dr. Salim Virani, a cardiologist at Baylor College of Medicine and the DeBakey VA Medical Center, in Houston.
That phenomenon happens when severe stress triggers a sudden heart muscle weakness — causing symptoms like shortness of breath and chest pain.
Overall, though, it’s difficult to know exactly what’s behind the findings, said Virani, who is also with the American College of Cardiology.
He noted that the patients were young — typically in their mid-30s — when they were diagnosed with a stress disorder.
And in young people, Virani said, substance abuse (such as drugs or alcohol) may be behind sudden cardiovascular problems.