West Virginia University researchers have found that children whose parents have high blood pressure have poorer reactions to stress both physically and psychologically.

Physiological stress represents a wide range of physical responses that occur as a direct effect of a stressor causing an upset in the homeostasis of the body. Disruption of the psychological or physical equilibrium the body immediately stimulates the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. The reaction of these systems causes a number of physical changes that have both short and long term effects on the body.

The normal reaction to stress involves the “fight or flight” response where the heart beats faster, blood pressure rises and metabolic rate increases as the body prepares to meet a perceived threat (stress). The research showed that children whose parents had high blood pressure had higher increases in blood pressure when under stress and higher resting heart rates than children of non-hypertensive parents.

The problem is that lasting stress episodes can lead to high blood pressure, heart attack and even stroke. According to the American Institute of Stress, there is evidence that fixed hypertension occurs more frequently in individuals with preexisting high anxiety levels over an extended period of time. In one large prospective study with almost twenty year follow up, about half the participants eventually developed hypertension. In a subgroup of over 300 men aged 45-59, high anxiety ratings at the time of initial evaluation proved surprisingly predictive for the development of hypertension.

In another 3-year study of almost 500 women, 7 developed hypertension. These and other studies support the argument that high levels of chronic anxiety may cause sustained hypertension in certain individuals.

The West Virginia University study also found psychological differences ― children whose parents had high blood pressure had unhealthier coping strategies when faced with stress, such as “verbal and nonverbal signs of frustration and discomfort.” They suggest that this “maladaptive reaction could be the result of experiencing unhealthy family arguments while growing up.”

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