Can Your Hair Tell You if You Are at Risk for a Heart Attack?

September 7, 2010

Researchers have developed a technique to measure cortisol levels in hair in order to determine a patient's risk for acute myocardial infarction.

Researchers from the University of Western Ontario in Canada , using a technique that measures cortisol levels in human hair, have developed “the first direct evidence, using a biological marker, to show chronic stress plays an important role in heart attacks.”

Although previous research has identified a host of stressors that have been linked to an increased risk for heart attack and for developing other forms of cardiovascular disease, until now researchers have been unable to develop a biological marker to measure chronic stress.

However, a team of researchers led by Stan Van Uum, professor in the Department of Medicine, University of Western Ontario, and Gideon Koren, Department of Pediatrics, Physiology, and Pharmacology, University of Western Ontario, and holder of the Ivey Chair in Molecular Toxicology at the University of Western Ontario Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, have “developed a method to measure cortisol levels in hair providing an accurate assessment of stress levels in the months prior to an acute event such as a heart attack.”

Van Uum, et al collected hair samples from adult males who had been admitted to the hospital after suffering heart attacks and compared them with hair samples taken from a control group of males who had been hospitalized for non-cardiovascular conditions and complaints. They found that hair taken from the patients who had suffered heart attacks had higher levels of cortisol for the previous three months compared with the samples from the control group.

According to a news release from the University of Western Ontario, “The prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, smoking and family history of coronary artery disease did not differ significantly between the two groups, although the heart attack group had more cholesterol problems. After accounting for the known risk factors, hair cortisol content emerged as the strongest predictor of heart attack.”

Koren said that because stress “is a serious part of modern life affecting many areas of health and life,” this study has implications “for research and for practice, as stress can be managed with lifestyle changes and psychotherapy.”

The study, titled “Hair Cortisol and the Risk for Acute Myocardial Infarction in Adult Men,” was published online on the website for Stress: The International Journal on the Biology of Stress. Discussing the clinical utility of their cortisol measuring technique, the authors wrote that “Unlike saliva, blood, and urine cortisol measurements, the hair technique provides a novel method for the quantification of longitudinal accumulation of cortisol over time and, therefore, a possible biological marker for chronic stress.” This is important because “this study documents the first use of this novel test in evaluating the role of chronic stress in the etiology of [acute myocardial infarction].”

Because this research has identified hair cortisol content as the strongest predictor of acute myocardial infarction (AMI) compared to other known risk factors for AMI measured in the study participants, it “highlights the potential of hair cortisol as a biological marker of chronic stress and increased cardiovascular risk.” This may indicate that “cortisol levels are elevated before the clinical manifestation of coronary heart disease, supporting the hypothesis that activation of the HPA-axis may be an important pathway via which increased stress results in increased risk for [coronary artery disease].”

The authors conclude that “the measurement of high levels of hair cortisol may help in identifying patients at high risk for future cardiovascular events,” noting that it is possible that such patients “may benefit more from an intensive assessment and treatment of the existing conventional cardiovascular risk factors and from lifestyle modifications, such as smoking cessation and physical exercise.” The identification of hair cortisol content as the strongest predictor of AMI “should highlight the possibly tremendous role of chronic stress, which is often overlooked by physicians, as a cardiovascular risk factor."