The deleterious effects of stress on the human body have been well documented, as have the stress-reducing effects of massage therapy. New, unrelated, research indicates a genetic trait known to make some people especially sensitive to stress also appears to be responsible for a 38 percent increased risk of heart attack or death in patients with heart disease, scientists at Duke Medicine report.

The finding outlines a new biological explanation for why many people are predisposed to cardiovascular disease and death, and suggests that certain behaviors could reduce deaths and disability from heart attacks, according to a press release from Duke Medicine.

“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,” said senior author Redford B. Williams Jr., M.D. director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University School of Medicine. “Here we have a paradigm for the move toward personalized medicine in cardiovascular disease.”

In a study published last year, the researchers reported that men with this genetic variant had twice as much cortisol in their blood when exposed to stress, compared to men without the genetic variant, the press release noted. Known as a stress hormone, cortisol is produced in the adrenal gland to support the body’s biological response when reacting to a situation that causes negative emotions.

Patients who carried the genetic variation had the highest rates of heart attacks and deaths over the median follow-up time of six years. Even adjusting for age, obesity, smoking history, other illnesses and the severity of their heart disease, the genetic trait was associated with a 38 percent increased risk of heart attack and death.

The research was published by PLOS ONE.

Related article: “Massage Boosts Mood, Immune Function and Relaxation”

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