The negative health effects of anxiety, such as increased coronary heart disease risks, have long been documented and accepted in the medical community. But now, research suggests that individuals with high levels of anxiety have an increased risk for stroke.

The researchers, who are from the University of Pittsburgh, published the results of their study in the journal Stroke.

They say that anxiety disorders – characterized by fear, unease and worry – impact nearly 20% of US adults each year and often last for at least 6 months.

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain stops, and the American Stroke Association says this cuts off oxygen and nutrients that are vital for the brain. When this happens, brain cells die, and depending in which side of the brain the stroke occurs, effects can include paralysis, vision or speech problems, memory loss and behavioral changes.

Stroke is the number four killer in the US and is a leading cause of disability, the researchers note.

“Anxiety is a very common condition in the general population,” says Maya Lambiase, a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Pittsburgh and lead author of the study. But she notes that anxiety is a “modifiable behavior,” adding:

Assessment and treatment of anxiety has the potential to not only improve overall quality of life, but also reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke, later in life.”

The investigators say their study is the first to suggest a link between high anxiety and an increased stroke risk, despite other known risk factors, such as depression.

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Individuals who are highly anxious have a 33% increased risk of suffering a stroke, researchers found.

To conduct their research, the team analyzed over 6,000 individuals between the ages of 25 and 74 who had never had a stroke.

These participants were part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which involved data collection between 1971 and 1975.

The participants completed questionnaires that assessed anxiety and depression levels, and researchers followed them for 22 years, during which the team recorded stroke occurrences from death certificates and reports from hospitals and nursing homes.

Results showed that participants with the highest anxiety levels were 33% more likely to suffer a stroke, compared with those who were less anxious.

“Most of the focus up until this point has been on depression,” says Prof. Rebecca Thurston, co-author of the study.

“These findings encourage practitioners to assess and treat anxiety, as well as to reconsider popular notions such as ‘worried well’ – this worrying may not make us so well,” she adds.

The researchers also found that people who had high anxiety levels were more likely to smoke and be physically inactive, which they say may also explain some of the links between anxiety and stroke.

“Even a modest increase in anxiety was associated with an increase in stroke risk,” Lambiase says, “so greater education and awareness of anxiety management is important.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that suggested a gene linked to stress increases heart attack risk in individuals by 38%.