Get anxiety under control to reduce stroke risk

"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," says Rebecca Thurston. (Credit: Will/Flickr)

People with high levels of anxiety are 33 percent more likely to suffer a stroke, as compared to their less anxious counterparts, researchers say.

“Anxiety is a very common condition in the general population, but it’s also a modifiable behavior,” says Maya Lambiase, postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and lead author of the report. “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.”


Previous studies have found that higher levels of anxiety are associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease, but few studies have investigated the connection between anxiety and stroke. This study, published in the journal Stroke, is the first to report an association between higher anxiety symptoms and an increased risk for stroke, despite other risk factors such as depression.

Anxiety disorders affect nearly 20 percent of American adults in any given year, and are characterized by feelings of fear, unease, and worry, often lasting at least six months. Feelings of stress and anxiety are also common in people who feel depressed or have other mental health problems, including alcohol or substance abuse. Stroke, which occurs when blood flow to a part of the brain stops, is the number four killer and a leading cause of disability in the US.

“Most of the focus up until this point has been on depression. These findings underscore the importance of also considering anxiety when considering cardiovascular diseases,” notes Rebecca Thurston, associate professor of psychiatry and 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.”

Researchers studied more than 6,000 people aged 25 to 74 who had not experienced a stroke and were representative of the general US population. All participants were enrolled in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which collected data from 1971 to 1975. Participants filled out a questionnaire that measured anxiety and depression levels, and were then followed for a period of up to 22 years. Researchers tracked stroke occurrences in these people through death certificates as well as hospital and nursing home reports.

“Even a modest increase in anxiety was associated with an increase in stroke risk, so greater education and awareness of anxiety management is important,” adds Lambiase. The researchers also note that people with high anxiety levels are more likely to smoke and be physically inactive which may help explain part of the anxiety-stroke link.

The National Institutes of Health funded the research.

Source: University of Pittsburgh