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UNT Insider | February 2013 issue | Psychologist receives NIH grant to determine link between stress and heart disease

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Psychologist receives NIH grant to determine link between stress and heart disease

From a UNT News Service press release

Can closely watching for possible threats around you -- whether as a function of your occupation or life situation, or because being vigilant is part of your personality -- lead to your being at greater risk for developing a serious health problem such as heart disease?

A team of researchers led by John Ruiz, assistant professor of clinical health and experimental psychology, will conduct a three-year study, called the North Texas Heart Study, to determine a possible link between social vigilance and risk for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, commonly known as hardening of the arteries when artery walls thicken as a result of accumulation of fatty materials such as cholesterol.

Ruiz has received a $1.63 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for the study, which involves researchers from the University of California at San Diego, Penn State University, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and the University of Utah as well as UNT.

Ruiz says that everyone is socially vigilant from time to time.

"We are all watchful of other people when we are walking alone at night, when we see someone we don't trust, or if we are in unfriendly places such as a hostile work environment," he says. "However, some people are chronically vigilant because of where they live and work, the type of job they have, or their personalities."

Ruiz and his team suggest that chronic vigilance, or hyper-vigilance, may be an important link between stress and greater heart disease risk.

"Vigilance comes at a physical cost," Ruiz says. "It is associated with an increase in blood pressure as the body is in a state of readiness to take action. The more one has these reactions, the greater the wear-and-tear on the body and risk for disease."

Since November 2012, the team has been recruiting 300 men and women in Denton County for the North Texas Heart Study. All participants must be 21 to 70 years old and in relatively good health.

Study participants will receive a medical screening with a physician, have blood drawn, and undergo an ultrasound scan of their carotid arteries, which are in the neck and are a common location for development of atherosclerosis. Participants also will complete survey questions about their demographics, health behaviors as well as aspects of their personality and social experiences.

Each participant will receive a portable blood pressure monitor to wear under clothes, and a smartphone. The monitor will assess the person's blood pressure at random times over a 48-hour period. The participant will then use the specially designed smartphone application to answer questions about where he or she was and what he or she was doing and feeling when the blood pressure was taken. Ruiz says this approach will help the researchers understand the degree to which people are vigilant in daily life and the physical effects of such vigilance.

Participants in the study will be invited back two years later to examine change in their atherosclerosis. During the first year of the study, they will receive $100, and will receive $150 for returning for the follow up.

Ruiz says the results of the study will provide a better understanding of basic behavioral patterns that link stress to cardiovascular disease.

"Our goal is to identify the ways by which stress influences disease risk. If you can identify a specific behavior associated with stress, you may be able to reduce that behavior to reduce health risks," he says.

Nancy Kolsti with UNT News Service can be reached at

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February 2013

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