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Stress and heart disease

A possible link to high cholesterol

Karen Miller
Stress and heart disease
Melissa Blount and her daughter Safiya. (Photo: Steven Adams Photographs)

Melissa Blount, 46, put her treatment for high cholesterol on hold. She was trying to have another child, but her efforts several years ago almost cost her her life.

According to Blount, she was in pretty good health — except for one “minor” detail. Blount had high cholesterol. “I’ve had that since my 20s,” she explained. It’s possible it runs in her family since her mother is afflicted as well.

Other than that, Blount seemed relatively healthy. She did not have high blood pressure or diabetes; she was active; and her weight — although a little higher than she preferred — was within acceptable limits.

Blount made the decision to avoid statins for her cholesterol. “It’s bad for the fetus,” she explained. Her decision is understandable. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has established a very clear warning about statins: “Do not uses these medicines if you are pregnant or nursing.”. The drugs may cause birth defects, and that the risks outweigh the benefits.

Blount preferred natural alternatives to control her cholesterol. She followed a healthy eating pattern and exercised regularly, both of which are recommended to keep cholesterol in check. But things went awry. In one year she suffered several losses. Her grandmother died; her father-in-law died; her husband was laid off; the couple was forced to short-sell their home; and there were no savings to speak of. On top of all that, while Blount was trying to develop a practice in Chicago, the family of three was living with a friend in a two-bedroom apartment.

“My stress level was incredibly high,” she explained. She gained weight but continued to exercise. Even that wasn’t going well. “I became very short of breath,” she said, “even when walking short distances.” To compound matters, treatment by a fertility specialist was not providing results.

Unknowingly, Blount’s stress could have exacerbated her condition. Adrenaline and cortisol — two stress hormones — trigger the production of cholesterol. There is increasing research to indicate that stress — and how a person deals with it — can increase LDL, or so-called “bad” cholesterol levels.

Things came to a head after visiting relatives in Detroit for Thanksgiving. Pains that felt like indigestion, tingling in the arm and shortness of breath escalated during the visit. Instead of calling 911 or visiting the emergency department, Blount chose to return to Chicago.

“I was in so much pain,” she said, but it still did not register that she was suffering a cardiac event. Her stress test two days later, however, confirmed it. She didn’t last 20 seconds on the treadmill. A subsequent catheterization (test to diagnose heart disease) found a 95 percent blockage in the “widow maker,” a heart artery so called because of the low survival rate when it’s obstructed.

This finding was a surprise to her as well as the medical staff. She did not fit the classic profile of a person suffering from so critical a cardiac condition. Still Blount did not grasp the seriousness of the situation and was more concerned about its impact on her efforts to have a child. She got it, though, when the cardiologist explained, “I am trying to save your life so you can be here with your daughter.” She had a stent inserted to open the artery.

Blount’s story has both a sad and happy ending. She did not have another child, but she did sidestep a serious heart attack. Her private practice is thriving. Her cholesterol is under control with drugs, including statins.

She speaks out for other women. “I want to talk to more women and change the picture of a cardiac patient,” she said.