Western Ontario LogoA heart attack is known to occur when the supply of blood and oxygen to a specific area of heart muscle is apparently restricted by a clot in a coronary artery. Well, experts from The University of Western Ontario claim to have put forth the first direct indication to show chronic stress plays a crucial role in heart attacks. This was mainly done with the help of a biological marker.

Scientists have also linked stressors like job, marital and financial problems to the augmented risk for rising cardiovascular disease including heart attack. However, they share that there hasn’t been a biological marker to evaluate chronic stress.

Experts came up with a method to examine cortisol levels in the hair, thereby offering a precise estimation of stress levels in the months before an acute event such as a heart attack.

“Intuitively we know stress is not good for you, but it’s not easy to measure. We know that on average, hair grows one centimetre a month, and so if we take a hair sample six cm long, we can determine stress levels for six months by measuring the cortisol level in the hair,” commented Koren, who holds the Ivey Chair in Molecular Toxicology at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

Cortisol is assumed to be a stress hormone and its secretion is usually enhanced during times of stress. Previously it was measured in serum, urine and saliva, but that only highlights stress at the time of measurement and not over longer periods of time. Experts also shared that cortisol is seemingly captured in the hair shaft.

Scientists examined hair samples that were around three cm long. It was collected from 56 male adults who were admitted to the Meir Medical Centre in Kfar-Saba, Israel and who were suffering from heart attacks. The control group included 56 male patients who were hospitalized for reasons other than a heart attack. Experts revealed that elevated hair cortisol levels equivalent to the previous three months were identified in the heart attack patients as compared to the control group.

“Stress is a serious part of modern life affecting many areas of health and life,” commented Koren. “This study has implications for research and for practice, as stress can be managed with lifestyle changes and psychotherapy.”

The occurrence of diabetes, hypertension, smoking and family history of coronary artery disease apparently did not differ between the two groups, however the heart attack group had more cholesterol problems. After accounting for the known risk factors, scientists shared that hair cortisol content emerged as the strongest predictor of heart attack.

These findings were published online in the journal Stress.