Health News

Hostility linked to artery-clogging plaque

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - People who seem to always be looking for a fight may find themselves at greater risk of heart disease, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that adults whose spouses rated them high on the “antagonism” scale were more likely to have calcium build-up in their heart arteries, an indicator of artery-clogging plaque. The relationship was mainly apparent in older, rather than middle-aged, adults.

A number of studies have found a link between hostile temperament and heart disease. These latest findings, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, suggest that a specific component of hostility -- antagonism -- is particularly hard on the heart.

For the purposes of psychosocial assessment, antagonism refers to a person’s tendency to be suspicious of others, argumentative, competitive or emotionally cold.

The study subjects included 300 middle-aged and older married couples in which neither spouse had been diagnosed with coronary heart disease.

Dr. Timothy W. Smith and colleagues at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City had participants answer questions about their own temperament and that of their spouses.

The researchers also used CT scans to gauge the amount of calcium in study participants’ arteries. Calcium is a component of the plaques that harden and narrow the coronary arteries in people with heart disease. A high calcium “score” indicates elevated risks of heart attack and stroke.

As mentioned, people with higher antagonism scores, based on their spouses’ answers to a standard questionnaire, were more likely to have significant calcium build-up in their arteries. However, when Smith’s team considered study participants’ own ratings of their temperament, there was no link between hostility and coronary calcium.

In contrast, no plaque build-up was observed in people whose hostility was mainly characterized by outbursts of anger.

More research, they note, is needed to understand why argumentative people might have a higher heart disease risk.

Other researchers have theorized that chronic hostility may contribute to heart problems both directly and indirectly. Negative emotions have physiological effects, like raising blood pressure and stirring up stress hormones, which can take a toll on the cardiovascular system over time.

In addition, people with hostile personalities may be resistant to adopting healthy habits or following medical advice.

SOURCE: Psychosomatic Medicine, June 2007.