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According to a Study, Physical Activity Lowers The Risk of Cardiovascular Disease by Lowering Stress-related Brain Activity



According to recent studies, physical activity reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease by partially inhibiting the brain’s signals associated with stress.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), a founding member of the Mass General Brigham healthcare system, and published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, found that physical activity had the greatest positive effects on cardiovascular health in people with stress-related conditions like depression.

Ahmed Tawakol, MD, an investigator and cardiologist in the Cardiovascular Imaging Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, and his colleagues examined medical records and other data of 50,359 participants from the Mass General Brigham Biobank who completed a physical activity survey in order to evaluate the mechanisms underlying the benefits of physical activity for cardiovascular disease and psychological disorders.

Measurements of stress-related brain activity and brain imaging tests were also performed on a selection of 774 subjects.

In the course of a 10-year median follow-up, 12.9% of patients experienced cardiovascular disease. Compared to individuals who did not meet these criteria, those who met the recommendations for physical exercise had a 23% decreased chance of acquiring cardiovascular disease.

Higher physical activity levels were also associated with decreased stress-related brain activity in individuals. Remarkably, increases in prefrontal cortex function, a region of the brain linked to executive function (i.e., impulse control and decision making) and known to inhibit brain stress centers, resulted in decreases in stress-related brain activity. Other lifestyle factors and heart disease risk factors were taken into consideration in the analyses.

Furthermore, the cardiovascular benefits of physical activity were largely explained by reductions in stress-related brain signals.

Adding to this discovery, the researchers discovered that a cohort of 50,359 people showed a significantly higher cardiovascular benefit from exercise compared to those who would be predicted to have higher stress-related brain activity, such as those who had pre-existing depression.

“Physical activity was roughly twice as effective in lowering cardiovascular disease risk among those with depression. Effects on the brain’s stress-related activity may explain this novel observation,” says Tawakol, who is the senior author of the study.

“Prospective studies are needed to identify potential mediators and to prove causality. In the meantime, clinicians could convey to patients that physical activity may have important brain effects, which may impart greater cardiovascular benefits among individuals with stress-related syndromes such as depression.”


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