Scientists have identified a stress gene that is linked to heart attack or heart disease, and an increased risk of death from such cardiovascular problems. The research offers a new biological reason behind why certain people are more predisposed to cardiovascular disease than others.

In a study published in PLoS One, researchers at Duke University School of Medicine analyzed a single DNA letter change that occurs in the genome — an alteration that is known to cause higher vulnerability to the effects of stress. Out of the 6,000 heart patients studied, about one in 10 men had the gene, while 3 percent of women did. They found that patients who had this genetic change had a 38 percent increased risk of heart attack or heart disease death after seven years, compared to people without the change. The researchers believe that finding a way for such patients to reduce stress could ultimately help them later on down the road and decrease their risk for heart attack.

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., along with cancer, stroke, accidents, and Alzheimer’s disease. In 2011, up to 26.5 million people in the U.S. had heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “We’ve heard a lot about personalized medicine in cancer, but in cardiovascular disease we are not nearly as far along in finding the genetic variants that identify people at higher risk,” Dr. Redford Williams, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University School of Medicine, said in a news release. “Here we have a paradigm for the move toward personalized medicine in cardiovascular disease.”

Stress has previously been linked to adverse health effects, as cortisol can affect metabolism as well as inflammation. Cortisol is a hormone released during stress that has also been found to be linked to heart disease. “This is one step towards the day when we will be able to identify people on the basis of this genotype who are at higher risk of developing heart disease in the first place,” Dr. Williams told the BBC. “That’s a step in the direction of personalized medicine for cardiovascular disease.” If doctors are able to recognize a patient’s stress gene, they would theoretically be able to treat heart disease preventatively.

“By finding a possible mechanism behind this relationship, these researchers have suggested tackling the problem either by changing behavior or, if needed, with existing medicines, Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, told the BBC. The lead authors of the study will conduct further research to better understand the gene change. They will focus on a certain compound, an enzyme called MMP9, that increases in the blood when stress-induced cortisol rises.

Meanwhile, people at risk for heart disease or anxiety can take steps to prevent further stress-induced damage. “There are positive lifestyle changes you can make to help you cope with stress,” Pearson told the BBC. “A balanced diet and regular physical activity will help you feel better able to cope with life’s demands. If you often feel anxious and you’re worried about your stress levels, make an appointment to talk it through with your doctor.”

Source: Brummett B, Babyak M, Jiang R, et al. "A Functional Polymorphism in the 5HTR2C Gene Associated with Stress Responses Also Predicts Incident Cardiovascular Events." PLoS One. 2013.