Research has shown that African-Americans are disproportionately affected by coronary heart disease (CHD), which involves damage to the heart’s major blood vessels.

Now a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reveals that African-Americans who experience moderate-to-high financial stress have almost three times the risk of heart disease events, including heart attacks and procedures to investigate or treat heart disease.

For the study, researchers from Brigham Women’s Hospital in Boston examined data from 2,256 participants enrolled in the Jackson Heart Study, a longitudinal cohort study of cardiovascular disease risks in African-American men and women living in the Jackson, Mississippi area.

The research team looked at the link between the psychological stress of financial hardship and CHD in this group and found that African-Americans who experienced moderate to high financial stress had an increased risk of developing heart disease compared to those who did not report such stress.

The study authors conclude that the psychological toll of financial hardship may impact the development of heart disease in combination with stress-related behaviors, health conditions and emotions that contribute to heart disease.

“Stress is known to contribute to disease risk, but the data from our study suggest a possible relationship between financial stress and heart disease that clinicians should be aware of as we research and develop interventions to address social determinants of health disparities,” said senior author Cheryl Clark, M.D., Sc.D., a researcher in the Division of General Medicine and Primary Care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The 12-year study included data from participants who did not have evidence of heart disease at the beginning of the research. Participants were asked to rate the stress they experienced in several areas, including financial hardship (such as having problems paying bills or running out of pocket money).

Participants rated the severity of each financially stressful experience on a 7-point scale, which the researchers then used to categorize the total level of stress due to finances participants reported at the onset of the study.

The study also included other characteristics and behaviors thought to lead to heart disease, including physical activity and smoking behavior; the presence of chronic conditions including hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and depression; whether participants had access to health care; and social issues such as education and income.

The findings reveal that African Americans who experienced moderate-to-high financial stress had almost three times the risk of heart disease events — including heart attacks and procedures to investigate or treat heart disease — than those who did not experience financial stress.

Participants with mild financial stress had nearly two times the risk of developing heart disease compared to those unaffected by stress. The combination of three key factors — depression, smoking, and diabetes — appeared to explain some of the connection between financial stress and heart disease risk.

The study shows a link but does not prove a causal connection between stress and heart disease risk. The authors were also not able to determine whether short-term or long-term exposures to stress were enough to raise heart disease risk. Importantly, the findings were limited to those who were willing to report their stress to researchers.

Still, researchers say the new findings should prompt deeper investigation into the role of economic stress on disease risk and encourage policies to reduce these stressors.

Source: Brigham and Women’s Hospital