This is the first study directly linking hostility with syndrome X, a cluster of physiologic features often observed in people with heart disease. Niaura led a team of researchers who analyzed data from personality questionnaires and blood samples collected from 1,081 men enrolled in the Boston Normative Aging Study between 1986 and 1990. Their research, published in the January/February issue
of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, points in particular to a correlation between hostility and the accumulation of abdominal fat, which is more closely related to heart disease than fat in the hips.
While numerous studies have linked hostility to heart disease, according to Niaura gaps still exist in understanding how these and other stressful feelings may affect cardiac health over time. Studies have shown that hostile, angry feelings are associated with a rise in cortisol, a hormone that interferes with the effects of insulin. Thus, there’s a possibility that hostility may raise blood-sugar levels as a prelude to syndrome X.
“We can’t tell from this study which comes first — hostility or these other metabolic problems,” Niaura says. “But people should be aware that hostility is a risk factor for coronary-heart disease.” (He notes that the study primarily included white males, and that the results may not apply to females or certain minority groups.)
A behavior pattern called “cynical hostility,” which is a tendency of self-isolated people to turn away from social support, is closely related to the appearance of cardiovascular risk factors, Niaura adds. If people see signs of this pattern in themselves or their loved ones, “they should probably try some kind of self-help program to control it,” he says. “If that doesn’t work, they may want to consider an anger-management program.”
And don’t forget to exercise. “Becoming physically active is a good way to control anger,” he says, “and when you’re active you don’t have time to be angry.”