According to researchers, high levels of stress hormones such as cortisol were found to increase the risk of death in those aged 65 or over by five times or more.
They were more likely to die from heart disease including heart attacks, heart failure and strokes, but not necessarily more likely to die from other causes such as cancer, it was found.
Short-term stress is thought to be good for health but chronic long-term stress can lead to damage in the lining of the blood vessels caused by inflammation. Stress can also raise blood pressure and cholesterol which are known to be harmful to the heart and stressed people tend to eat a poorer diet and are more likely to drink too much alcohol, caffeine as well as smoke.
Researchers at VU University Medical Center in The Netherlands, measured levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in the urine of 861 people aged 65 or older. The measurement was taken once over a 24-hour period. They were then tracked for six years and any deaths recorded.
It was found that those with the highest levels of cortisol in their urine were five times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than those with the lowest levels. Researchers took into account other factors that could influence cardiovascular disease, such as socio-economic status, health problems such as obesity and high blood pressure and lifestyle factors such as smoking The findings are due to be published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.
Dr Nicole Vogelzangs, lead author of the study, said: “Previous studies have suggested that cortisol might increase the risk of cardiovascular mortality, but until now, no study had directly tested this hypothesis.
“The results of our study clearly show that cortisol levels in a general older population predict cardiovascular death, but not other causes of mortality. “Cortisol is a critical component of the stress system of the human body but in higher concentrations can be harmful.
“Our study shows that older persons with high levels of cortisol have an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. This finding significantly adds evidence to the belief that cortisol can be damaging to the cardiovascular system.”
One in three of all deaths in the West are caused by cardiovascular disease, accounting for more than 200,000 deaths per year. Ellen Mason, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Stress is already associated with an increased risk of heart disease and this study throws up more evidence about the role of cortisol.
“It’s important we all try and find ways to cope with stress which don’t involve unhealthy habits that increase your risk of heart disease, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol and eating foods high in saturated fat and salt.”