Intermountain Healthcare warns that COVID-19 stress increases risk of heart disease in women

Photo Courtesy: Intermountain Healthcare

UTAH, Feb. 15, 2021 (Gephardt Daily) — Intermountain Healthcare is warning that COVID-19 stress increases the risk of heart disease in women.

Two-thirds of women play some sort of caregiver role, whether that’s to a spouse, children, parents, or neighbors, and the need for such care has skyrocketed during the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Most women are already doing unpaid caregiver work,” said Sheralee D. Petersen, PA–C, a certified physician assistant at the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute, by way of a news release. “Now they’re staying at home, many are working at home, while others are essential workers who’re helping children with remote school. At the same time, things that help relieve stress, such as direct access to strong social networks and physical activity, may be limited. These factors compounded by all the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic have led to increased stress and burnout.”

For National Heart Awareness Month in February, Intermountain Healthcare is raising awareness about the effects of COVID-19 pandemic stress on women’s heart health, and what can be done about it.

Cardiovascular disease remains the number one killer of women, and too many women, particularly young women, remain unaware of their risk, the news release said. Heart disease claims the lives of one in three women; that’s about one woman every 80 seconds.

“Our bodies are well equipped for minor, acute stressors, but they’re not as well-equipped for long-term, chronic stressors,” Petersen said.

High levels of stress hormones are associated with higher blood pressure, higher blood sugar, higher cholesterol, and increased inflammation, which in turn increases risk for heart disease. These effects are more pronounced in post-menopausal women, she added.

A December study from the Journal of the American Heart Association found that women who felt more stressed at their jobs, in their roles as caregivers, mothers, and spouses, had greater chances of developing high blood pressure, gaining weight, and eating a less healthy diet, all factors that contribute to poorer heart health.

Also last year, researchers found a four-fold increase in incidences of stress cardiomyopathy, more commonly known as broken heart syndrome, between March 1 and April 30 of 2020, compared to the same time period in 2019.

Stress cardiomyopathy typically occurs in women, often after divorce or death of a loved one, and mimics a heart attack. While most patients usually make a full recovery, it’s still a signal of hearts gone haywire as a result of acute stress.

While COVID-19 stress affects both genders, women, particularly caregivers, have been less likely to engage in activities proven to alleviate the stress itself. Many have been caught in a pandemic stress cycle that’s now entering its second year.

“Most of us are familiar with the common recommendations for reducing stress: we should exercise, sleep well, reach out to friends, and stick to a healthy diet,” said Petersen. “We’ve heard it many times before, but we don’t often address the ‘how’ in making sure we carve out time to follow that advice. It feels disingenuous if we don’t talk about what steps we all must take to make this happen.”

Petersen said this starts with women giving themselves permission and “honoring the fact that taking time for themselves makes us better mothers, partners, sisters, neighbors, co-workers, whatever we need to be, especially since a lot of women defer self-care as they continue to try and be all things to all people.”

For more information on heart health, click here.


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