25 September 1998

Let Your Anger Hang Out

Women who are hostile, hold in their anger, and feel self-conscious in public show greater thickness of their carotid arteries, an early marker for the development of atherosclerosis throughout their bodies, new research shows.

"These longitudinal data are the first to document the association between (thickening of the carotid arteries) and psychosocial characteristics in middle aged women," say Karen A. Matthews, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh in the September-October issue of Psychosomatic Medicine. "Holding in anger or suppressing negative emotions more generally may be an important determinant of women's cardiovascular health."

At the beginning of the study, Dr. Matthews and her colleagues had 200 women complete questionnaires measuring their levels of anxiety, public self-consciousness, and anger style. Several years later they measured the same women's hostile attitudes, and at least five years after menopause they used ultrasound to examine the thickness of the women's carotid arteries, which supply blood to the head. At the beginning of the study the women were 47 years old, on average, and in good health.

The women who were hostile, held in their anger, and were self-conscious in public experienced greater thickening in their carotid arteries, even when the researchers controlled for other factors that might account for the blood vessel thickening - including blood pressure, smoking history, and triglyceride levels. Half of the women already showed signs of developing plaques in their carotid arteries, although no one had progressed to full-blown disease.

Previous studies documented a link between heart disease and hostility and Type A behavior in men, but Dr. Matthews and her colleagues say their results "add to a small but growing literature on the psychosocial attributes of women at risk of developing cardiovascular disease."

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