April 14 (UPI) -- Some 15 percent of people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after having a heart attack, and the condition often leads to additional health problems in many of them, a study published Tuesday finds.
People diagnosed with PTSD following a heart attack were nearly twice as likely to develop ischemia, or reduced blood flow, with mental stress, according to research published Tuesday by JAMA Network Open.
The more severe the PTSD symptoms, researchers report, the higher their risk for serious heart complications, like coronary artery disease.
"PTSD increases the risk of adverse events and death in people after a heart attack because they are more likely to develop abnormal blood circulation to the heart if they are under stress," study co-author Dr. Viola Vaccarino, professor of cardiovascular research in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, told UPI. "Although we tested the patients in the lab, it is likely that they experience this problem during everyday life when exposed to stress, like when they experience reminders of their trauma, which is a common symptom of PTSD."
More than 1 million people in the United States have a heart attack each year, according to the American Heart Association, and roughly 30 percent of these are "recurrent" incidents -- meaning that many people have multiple heart attacks. Roughly 14 percent of all heart attacks are fatal.
For their study, Vaccarino and her colleagues assessed 303 adults between age 18 and 60 who had a heart attack, or myocardial infarction, within the prior eight months. PTSD diagnoses were confirmed using the Structured Clinical Interview from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, and the PTSD Symptom Checklist.
In all, nearly half of the study participants, who had a mean age of 51, were women and roughly two thirds were African-American. The authors found that those with PTSD had a higher rate of ischemia with mental stress, 27.3 percent, than those without PTSD, 14.7 percent.
They also noted that increasing levels of PTSD symptoms were associated with higher risk for ischemia with mental stress. Risk for reduced blood flow increased by 18 percent for every five-point rise in PTSD symptom severity, they observed.
Based on these findings, Vaccarino suggested that people who have suffered a heart attack should explore "stress reduction techniques," including relaxation, biofeedback, meditation and regular physical activity to improve both mental and heart health. They should also discuss any PTSD symptoms with their doctors so they can be referred to specialist care, she added.
"Potentially, medications or other interventions could be tailored to address this specific problem," Vaccarino said. "Prompt recognition and improvement of PTSD symptoms in patients who have had a heart attack should help their heart health in addition to their mental health."