Lecture – Examining the Connections of PTSD and Cardiovascular Disease

Available with English captions.

Presented by Antonia V. Seligowski, PhD, McLean Hospital – McLean Forum lecture

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease as compared to the general population. Individuals with PTSD are more likely to have myocardial infarction, stroke, and heart failure. They are also more likely to have cardiac risk factors, such as hypertension and endothelial dysfunction.

According to Seligowski, the link between PTSD and cardiovascular disease is so strong that, in 2018, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began bringing together experts to establish the state of the literature and identify gaps and priorities for future research.

Watch now to learn more about:

  • The ways that PTSD is associated with many forms of cardiovascular disease
  • Research studies focusing on the link between PTSD and mechanisms in the body, such as the autonomic nervous system, the renin-angiotensin system, and endothelial function
  • Effective treatments for individuals with both heart disease and PTSD
  • Suggestions for further research

In this talk, Seligowski reviews recent research into the links between heart disease and PTSD. She focuses on work that investigates how specific mechanisms in the body can indicate cardiovascular disease in individuals with PTSD or show heightened risk.

Among the mechanisms being studied, Seligowski reports, is the autonomic nervous system, which regulates heart rate and other functions. The exaggerated fear shown in people with PTSD, she said, can reveal symptoms such as elevated heart rate, increased sweat response, and poor fear inhibition. These signs are also seen in individuals with cardiac issues.

Similar links, Seligowski states, are suggested in results from studies into the renin-angiotensin system, the mechanism responsible for regulating blood pressure. Other links have been revealed in work that looks at endothelial function, the system that regulates how well blood flows through the blood vessels. PTSD, she says, is associated with poor endothelial functions. Investigations into this mechanism offer “a promising new avenue to expand research.”

To treat those with both PTSD and cardiovascular disease, Seligowski says that certain approaches have shown great promise. For examples, transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcutaneous cervical vagus nerve stimulation have been shown to help PTSD and improve autonomic nervous system function.

Also, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) has been successful in addressing PTSD symptoms, but there have been “mixed results” in using CBT to reduce heart disease risk, she reports.

Ultimately, Seligowski states, “there is not going to be one treatment for cardiovascular disease and PTSD that is best.” For this reason, more research is needed into the mechanisms underlying the two conditions.