A new study found a relationship between anxiety and heart disease in men.
Stressed student at home studying with personal laptop computer
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Your mental health and physical health are more intertwined than you may think—research has shown that your gut health can influence your anxiety, and healthy eating and exercise can help you manage depression. Now more research is finding that the relationship between mental and physical health goes both ways.

Men who worry more are at a higher biological risk for heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, according to new research. The 40-year study, which was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association Monday, used data from the Normative Aging Study, a study of aging in men founded at a Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic. More than 1,500 people, mostly white, participated in the study, which included both veterans and non-veterans. At the start of the study, participants did not have heart disease or cancer, and researchers used a personality assessment survey and worry assessment tool to measure neuroticism and anxiety.

"Neuroticism is a personality trait characterized by a tendency to interpret situations as threatening, stressful and/or overwhelming," said Lewina Lee, Ph.D., lead author of the study, in a media release. "Individuals with high levels of neuroticism are prone to experience negative emotions—such as fear, anxiety, sadness and anger—more intensely and more frequently."

Participants also had physical exams and blood tests every three to five years, which included checking on seven factors that can increase the risk of cardiometabolic disease: high systolic and diastolic blood pressure, high total cholesterol, high triglycerides, obesity, elevated fasting blood sugar levels and high erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), which is a marker of inflammation. Using the national guidelines for the factors at the time, participants were separated into two categories: those who became high-risk in six of the seven factors or more and those who did not. Researchers used data from 1975 through 2015. 

The researchers found that on average, participants gained a risk factor each decade from their 30s to their 60s, with an average of 3.8 risk factors by age 65. But those with higher levels of neuroticism had more high-risk factors at every age. After adjusting for demographic characteristics, higher neuroticism was associated with a 13% higher likelihood of having six or more cardiometabolic disease risk factors, while higher worry levels were associated with a 10% higher likelihood.

Researchers didn't have data on how many of the participants sought treatment for their anxiety issues, but other research teams have found that men are less likely than women to seek any mental health treatment.

"While we do not know whether treatment of anxiety and worry may lower one's cardiometabolic risk, anxious and worry-prone individuals should pay greater attention to their cardiometabolic health," Lee said. "For example, by having routine health check-ups and being proactive in managing their cardiometabolic disease risk levels (such as taking medications for high blood pressure and maintaining a healthy weight), they may be able to decrease their likelihood of developing cardiometabolic disease."

The Bottom Line

Men who are prone to worry or have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder should pay extra attention to their cardiometabolic health factors, like blood pressure, weight and blood sugar levels. While this study raises the possibility that mental health treatment for anxiety could be beneficial for heart health, more research is needed to prove any connection. In the meantime, there are several simple measures you can take to help alleviate your anxiety, like eating anti-inflammatory foods, dialing back your caffeine intake and getting enough sleep.