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Feeling hopeless ups stroke risks in women

For women, feelings of hopelessness are not just unfortunate, they are a stroke risk, U.S. researchers said on Thursday.
/ Source: Reuters

For women, feelings of hopelessness are not just unfortunate, they are a stroke risk, U.S. researchers said on Thursday.

They said otherwise healthy women who are chronically hopeless are more likely to have a buildup of plaque in their neck arteries that can trigger a stroke.

"These findings suggest that women who experience feelings of hopelessness may have greater risk for future heart disease and stroke," said Susan Everson-Rose of the University of Minnesota Medical School, whose study appears in the journal Stroke.

Many studies have linked depression with heart disease, and recent studies have suggested that optimism may protect women from heart disease.

Everson-Rose's study is the first to show that hopelessness may directly affect a healthy woman's risk for stroke.

Researchers looked at 559 women with an average age of 50 who had no clinical signs of heart disease, such as elevated blood pressure.

To measure hopelessness, they asked questions about the future and personal goals. They also measured symptoms of depression using a 20-item assessment scale.

And they took ultrasound images of the women to measure the thickness of their neck arteries.

"What we found is, those women who reported feeling hopeless about the future or their personal goals had more thickening in the neck arteries -- more atherosclerosis -- which is a predictor of stroke and subsequent heart attack," Everson-Rose said in a telephone interview.

The difference was measurable.

Women who scored high on the hopelessness scale had neck arteries that were 0.0008 of an inch (0.02 mm) thicker than their more hopeful counterparts.

The difference was significant even after adjusting for other heart risk factors including age, race, income, heart disease risk factors, and even depression.

Everson-Rose said the team looked specifically for differences between women who where hopeless and those who were depressed — a more global disorder that affects things like sleep, appetite and overall mood.

"What we find is this thickening in the neck arteries is a specific feature to hopelessness," she said.

Everson-Rose said studies are needed to understand what physiological changes specifically occur in women who are chronically hopeless. The study did not track levels of cortisol, a known stress hormone, for example.

Nevertheless, women should be aware that feelings of hopelessness may have physical consequences.

"If women do have these strong feelings, it is potentially a predictor of cardiovascular disease and they should seek help," she said.