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A stress hormone found in hair may be an indicator of higher heart disease risk. AlxeyPnferov/Getty Images
  • Researchers report that a stress hormone found in hair samples may help predict who is at higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • The association appeared to be strongest among younger adults, a finding that surprised some experts
  • Experts note that stress can be reduced by lifestyle factors such as sleep, exercise, and meditation.

Scientists from The Netherlands are reporting that hair samples might predict future cardiovascular disease.

The strongest associations appeared to be for hair cortisone and younger individuals.

Those were the results from a study recently presented at this year’s European Congress on Obesity in Dublin, Ireland.

The findings haven’t been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal.

In their study, scientists used 6,341 hair samples from the Lifelines cohort study with 167,000 adult participants from the northern population of The Netherlands.

The researchers tested the hair samples and followed the participants for an average of 5 to 7 years to assess a potential long-term relationship between stress hormones and cardiovascular health.

The authors noted that hair has long-term glucocorticoids, including hair cortisol and hair cortisone, which have been associated with obesity and cardiometabolic parameters in the past.

However, associations with cardiovascular endpoints are lacking.

“It’s well established that high cortisol levels are associated with cardiovascular events,” according to Dr Caroline Messer, an endocrinologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York who was not involved in the study.

“Cortisol increases cholesterol, blood sugars and blood pressure, all of which raise the risk for heart disease,” she told Medical News Today.

During the follow-up period, there were 133 cardiovascular events. The most significant associations were for hair cortisone and in younger people.

People with higher long-term cortisone levels were twice as likely to experience cardiovascular events such as a stroke or heart attack.

The risk was three times as likely for people over 57. However, in people 57 and older, hormone levels were not strongly linked to cardiovascular disease.

“The findings revealed that chronic stress, along with glucocorticoid dysregulation, may contribute to cardiovascular disease,” said Dr. Rigved Tadwalkar, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California who was not involved in the study.

“The findings are of high interest because, until now, longitudinal data has mostly only associated hair glucocorticoid levels with surrogate cardiometabolic parameters,” he told Medical News Today. “Moreover, while the acute stress response on the cardiovascular system has been well-defined, there is a knowledge gap regarding the cumulative impact of longer-term glucocorticoid exposure.”

“Ultimately, further research is needed to confirm the results through independent investigations and to unravel the underlying mechanisms. Understanding the mechanisms is vital for developing effective interventions to mitigate cardiovascular risk,” he added.

The study found the most substantial connection between stress hormones and cardiovascular disease in the younger group.

Although there was still a connection for the older group, it was not as strong.

This finding surprised Tadwalkar.

“One surprising finding was the lack of significant association between either hair cortisone or hair cortisol levels and incident cardiovascular disease in older individuals,” Tadwalkar noted. “This lack of significant association raises questions about the complex interplay between stress hormones and cardiovascular risk in this population.”

“The reasons for this age-specific difference are unclear and require additional investigation,” Tadwalkar continued. “It is possible that changes in stress hormone regulation or altered metabolic pathways are responsible. It is also certainly possible that the impact of chronic stress and the resultant glucocorticoid dysregulation on cardiovascular health differs between younger and older people due to age-related changes.”

Stress is how your body reacts to a situation or challenge and happens when the challenge is positive or negative.

You might develop long-term stress if you are:

  • having problems at work or home
  • dealing with a long-term illness
  • caring for someone with a long-term illness
  • struggling with financial issues

Long-term stress can lead to heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, and depression.

Although you can’t always avoid stressful situations, experts say you can take steps to lower your stress levels.

Mike Masi, PT, a physical therapist and orthopedic specialist in North Carolina, provides some ideas for incorporating mind-body techniques to lower stress:

Meditation: The Open Calm meditation method uses attention training, where you continually return to a meaningful focus point to help promote a relaxed state. Creating this state allows us to lower our heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. Practicing meditation for a few minutes daily can be a practical way to incorporate mind/ body techniques into your care and relax your central nervous system. There are some great apps out there that can help get you started, like Headspace or Insight Timer, as they provide you with basic tools for effective meditation and provide guided practices.

Movement: Moderated physical activity has proven to enhance the effects of a positive inflammation response by the body. Movement increases growth and repair and helps move inflammatory fluid when dosed appropriately. Both yoga and tai chi are excellent forms of mindful movement that are less strenuous and incorporate meditation methods along with movement. Two forms of yoga that are particularly effective for this are Yin and Kundalini yoga.

Dr. Caroline Messer, an endocrinologist based in New York, tells Medical News Today that improved sleep quality, increased exercise, meditation, and time away from work can help.

She added that you can also try anti-anxiety medications to lower cortisol levels.