The link between stress and heart health has been known for years to send you into an early grave, but researchers have finally quantified it. A study conducted by researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center has found that stress can elevate your risk of a heart attack by 27 percent. That risk is so severe, they say, that it is the equivalent of smoking five cigarettes each day.

The finding was the result of a meta-analysis of six studies. Within them, the participants were asked about how much stress they felt. Then researchers sorted the participants into two categories: high-stress and low-stress. The studies followed the participants, on average, for 14 years. Researchers noted that the effect of stress on the heart was the same as an increase of 2.8 mmol/l in bad (LDL) cholesterol and a 2.7/1.4 mmHg rise in blood pressure.

Doctors say that a cholesterol increase of 2.8 mmol/L is more than double the recommended limit for heart and stroke patients.

A healthy blood pressure reading is generally below 140/90 mmHg.

Both high blood pressure and high cholesterol are considered to be major risk factors for heart attacks. High cholesterol contributes to the narrowing of blood vessels, making it harder for blood cells to move throughout the body. Similarly, high blood pressure can cause the blood vessels to harden and stiffen, making them more susceptible to blockage. It is believed that high blood pressure, in particular, is responsible for 50 percent of heart attacks and strokes.

Researchers found that these findings were the same across gender lines. They said that age did make a difference, however. As people became older, the link between stress and heart health became even more intertwined, indicating that the effect of stress compounds over time. They also said that older individuals tend to have higher blood pressure and cholesterol to begin with.

The study was published in the American Journal of Cardiology.

Heart disease is the single greatest killer of Americans.