"Mr. Lay is an unfortunate example of the fact that stress can play a role in precipitating an acute heart attack," said Redford Williams, M.D., director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University Medical Center. "Stress from major life events that we can't control, such as legal difficulties, can be highly detrimental."
Williams has published more than 150 scientific articles on stress and heart disease. He is also co-author of the book Anger Kills.
"People with high-demand jobs but little control over those jobs could be at high risk for stress-related heart disease," Williams said. "Stress can play nearly as important a role in having a heart attack as high cholesterol or high blood pressure," he added.
Anyone with an underlying heart condition is much more susceptible to the effects of stress, Williams said.
Individuals who feel constantly depressed, worried, anxious or angry should visit their doctor. Fatigue, a racing heart or difficulty breathing should also prompt a call to a physician to determine if the physical factors leading to heart disease are under control, Williams said. If necessary, doctors can recommend aspirin, antihypertensive medication or drugs known as beta blockers to control or prevent potential problems.
Williams recommends talking about problems with loved ones and brainstorming about ways to alleviate stressful situations. Regular meditation or relaxation, he said, can also help reduce the amount of stress hormones and protect the mind and body from the harmful effects of extreme stress.
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