UCL News


Mental stress linked to cholesterol levels

24 November 2005

A new study by Professor Andrew Steptoe and Dr Lena Brydon (UCL Epidemiology & Public Health) has revealed that individuals susceptible to mental stress are likely to suffer from long-term increases in cholesterol levels.

The findings, published in the November issue of the American Psychological Association's 'Health Psychology' journal indicate that these individuals are also at heightened risk of heart disease.

Professor Steptoe's team studied 199 healthy, middle-aged men and women and their reactions to stressful behavioural activities. Changes in both 'bad' low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and 'good' high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels were measured before and after the tasks. To assess the long-term effects of stress, the team measured the participants' levels again three years later.

Professor Steptoe said: "We found that individuals vary in their cholesterol responses to stress. Some of the participants showed large increases even in the short-term, while others showed very little response. The responses seen in the laboratory probably reflect reaction to stress in everyday life, so the larger cholesterol responders to stress tasks will be large responders to emotional situations as well. It is these responses in everyday life that accumulated to lead to the increased cholesterol levels we saw three years later."

As would be expected, cholesterol levels in all participants had risen over three years. However, the top third of stress responders showed substantially greater rises in fasting cholesterol than the other participants, as well as being three times more likely to have a level of LDL cholesterol above clinical thresholds than the bottom third of stress responders.

Professor Steptoe added: "Even though these lipid responses to stress were not large, the levels are something to be concerned about. These findings give us an opportunity to know whose cholesterol may rise in response to stress and provide a warning for those who may be more at risk of coronary heart disease."