Hard Times Can Mean Hardened Arteries

August 15, 1997

DALLAS, Aug. 26 -- Hopelessness is a downer for the heart, according to a study that appears in this month's American Heart Association journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology.

The four-year study of 942 middle-aged men links hopelessness -- defined as feeling like a failure or having an uncertain future -- to a faster progression of atherosclerosis.

Men were asked to rate their feelings of hopelessness on a scale of low, moderate or high. Ultrasound provided a picture of the blood vessels, revealing the amount of artery narrowing from atherosclerosis.

Susan Everson, Ph.D., of the Public Health Institute (PHI) in Berkeley, and lead author of the study, says those who reported high levels of hopelessness after four years had a 20 percent greater increase in atherosclerosis than those with lower levels of hopelessness.

"This is the same magnitude of increased risk that one sees in comparing a pack-a-day smoker to a nonsmoker," says Everson, an associate research scientist at the Human Population Laboratory of the PHI.

"The take-home message is that physicians need to realize that hopelessness has a negative impact and adds to the burden of the disease," she says. Future research needs to more thoroughly examine the mechanisms underlying the observed relationships and identify "social, psychological and physiological factors that lead to hopelessness as well as the factors that may help alleviate it," she adds.

Atherosclerosis is a progressive disease in which fat, cholesterol, cellular waste products, and calcium collect in the blood vessels, impairing their ability to deliver oxygen and nutrients and setting the stage for a heart attack or stroke.

The study gives more support to the "long-held belief that giving up hope has adverse physical and mental health consequences." But exactly why that happens is something that will take more time to determine, says Everson and her co-investigators.

Psychological stressors, depression and anxiety can have effects on the body's central nervous system that influence the production of stress hormones. These factors may be at play in individuals who are highly hopeless, she says.

The data for the study came from the Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease study that searches for causes of heart disease among residents of the Kuopio region of Finland.

Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology is one of five journals published by the American Heart Association.
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Media advisory: Dr. Everson can be reached at (510) 540-2396. Reporters may call (214) 706-1396 for a copy of the journal report. (Please do not publish telephone numbers).

American Heart Association

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