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Research delves into women’s, men’s differing reactions to mental stress

By Marilyn J. Shaw

More women than men die from heart disease each year. This suggests that the cardiovascular system of men and women functions differently.

“Our lab has been interested in examining whether or not the response to stress, in particular mental stress,  is different, which might be one explanation why women die at a higher rate,” said Edmund O. Acevedo, Ph.D., chair and professor of the Department of Health and Human Performance in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education.

In ongoing research, Acevedo and his team introduced human subjects to lab-induced stressors, including computer tasks, mental arithmetic and the Stroop color word task.

“They’re simple tasks anybody can do,” he explained. Yet men and women react differently to the mental stress. “In males, these tasks elicit a greater blood pressure response. We call that a vascular reaction. In females, a greater increase in heart rate, which is a cardiac response.”

To better understand the body’s reaction, the researchers draw blood periodically from their subjects and examine it in an attempt to distinguish unique inflammatory markers that help to explain the difference in cardiovascular response.

Acevedo also is interested in obesity and physical activity and the impact of pro-inflammatory response.

“Ours was the first lab to demonstrate pro-inflammatory response linked to BMI (body mass index),” Acevedo said. “Our intention is a greater understanding of how obesity and physical activity ameliorate or attenuate cardiac and vascular reactions. The lab has completed studies in lean and obese males, and we hope to extend our data collection on females,” he said. The VCU Presidential Research Initiatives Program and VCU School of Nursing are providing funding. Principal investigator for the male subjects is assistant professor R. Lee Franco, Ph.D., in the School of Education, and for the female subjects is associate professor Dr. Kyungeh An, Ph.D., in the School of Nursing.

In the past, Acevedo’s research broadly looked into human performance, including physiological reactions to the stress of exercise. More recently, his approach has evolved into studies that can have an impact on more people, leading him to address health issues. The gender differences in heart disease rates and current treatment approaches, led him into this realm.

“As a scientist, (the gender difference in heart disease rates) is an interesting, intriguing question. The clinical paradigms were developed for males. How come we do not do something different for women? We don’t understand the differences well enough,”  he said.

“We’re adding to the literature of what might be happening. And with that knowledge, someone might eventually develop novel approaches.”

About VCU and the VCU Medical Center

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 222 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Sixty-six of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. MCV Hospitals and the health sciences schools of Virginia Commonwealth University compose the VCU Medical Center, one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers. For more, see