High anxiety in middle-age men can lead to high blood pressure 20 years later, according to a study that scientists say is strong evidence of a link between behavior and physical health.
Alabama researchers have found that angst-filled men in their 40s and 50s are twice as likely to undergo treatment for high blood pressure later in life than men with a calmer outlook on life.
"This is a good, solid study that should serve as a red flag to pursue the relationship between anxiety and high blood pressure," said Richard Friedman, a psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a specialist on stress-related illnesses.
However, he said, "the finding does not mean that everybody who is anxious will have elevations in blood pressure."
High blood pressure is one of many risk factors for coronary heart disease, stroke and kidney disease. Blood pressure measures the force of blood on arterial walls as it is pumped throughout the body. Increased blood pressure is common as people get older. In fact, doctors suspect that about 50 percent of people over 60 have levels above the normal 120/80.
Dr. Jerome Markovitz and colleagues at the University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham analyzed information from more than 1,000 people who have been part of the continuing Framingham Heart Study that began in 1948.
The hypertensives had blood pressures 160/95 or above, Dr. Markovitz said.
Anxiety was a predictive risk factor among the 497 men studied, researchers said. The highly anxious women tested in the study were at no higher risk for hypertension, although a previous study by Dr. Markovitz showed that tense women were at risk. He cannot explain the differences between the studies.
"It's a wonderful study. It shows that anxiety is an independent risk factor for hypertension," said Dr. Herbert Benson, a researcher at Harvard Medical School and co-author of "The Wellness Book."
The finding could have immediate implications for anxious people who already have high blood pressure. "Treating anxiety may be useful," the authors concluded in their report, published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The study began when Massachusetts researchers embarked on massive long-term study of health risk factors. At the time, they gave thousands of men and women psychological and physical exams. Every two years, they collect additional information on the health of the group.