Marla Ahlgrimm: Early Stress Reduction Aids in Later-Life Health
Reduced stress levels may decrease heart disease in postmenopausal women, says Marla Ahlgrimm, a pharmacist and women’s health expert based in Madison, Wis. In the following interview, Marla Ahlgrimm answers questions about a study published by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which examined female primates’ physical reaction to stress.
Q: What was the purpose of this experiment?
Marla Ahlgrimm: To examine the effects of premenopausal stress on female primates. Specifically, researchers focused on the monkey’s long-term physical reaction to stress in relation to heart disease and overall health.
Q: Why heart disease?
Marla Ahlgrimm: Heart disease is the leading cause of death of both men and women in the United States. The study was conducted to determine potential ways to lower a woman’s risk.
Q: Who conducted the study?
Marla Ahlgrimm: The study, which was published in The Green Journal in 2002, was paid for by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and was conducted by Dr. Jay Kaplan of North Carolina’s Wake Forest University.
Q: Did treating monkeys who are low in estrogen prior to menopause have any effect?
Marla Ahlgrimm: Yes, the study substantiated a long standing theory that adequate estrogen levels in the years prior to menopause could reduce fat deposits in the heart.
Q: Can estrogen be used to treat heart disease?
Marla Ahlgrimm: Estrogen, when taken after heart disease has begun, is not likely to reduce or delay the health effects of heart disease.
Q: How did the researchers find monkeys with low estrogen levels?
Marla Ahlgrimm: Certain females were placed as low-ranking members of a primate society. These beta monkeys were put under the stress of being a lesser member of society. That stress is what caused the lower estrogen levels.
Q: Were the higher-ranking monkeys also stressed?
Marla Ahlgrimm: The study concluded that the dominant monkeys entered menopause with normal estrogen levels.
Q: Compared with the dominant monkeys, did the lower order monkeys have a higher risk of heart disease?
Marla Ahlgrimm: Yes, both sets of monkeys were treated with estrogen after medically induced menopause. The stressed monkeys had considerably higher instances of atherosclerosis than their more socially accepted counterparts.
Q: Is premenopausal estrogen treatment a cure for arterial buildup?
Marla Ahlgrimm: Although the study found that monkeys treated with estrogen are less likely to suffer from heart problems, the findings suggest that early stress reduction is more important than hormone levels.
Q: How soon before menopause should women practice stress reduction methods?
Marla Ahlgrimm: Reducing stress at any age can have a significantly positive overall effect on health. However, women should focus on stress reduction as early as their 20s.
Q: How prevalent is heart disease in women?
Marla Ahlgrimm: In 2001, women accounted for nearly 63 percent of heart-failure fatalities in the United States. Twenty percent of women diagnosed with the disease die within 12 months.
Q: Do women who do live with heart disease have a diminished quality of life?
Marla Ahlgrimm: Living with heart disease is extremely difficult and can be stressful in itself. Women who do live past the one-year mark typically have a poor quality of life—even compared to men with the same condition.
Q: Aside from stress, what are other factors in heart disease in women?
Marla Ahlgrimm: Obesity or being significantly underweight, smoking, lack of regular exercise, a poor diet, and excessive alcohol use are a few other influences.
Q: Are female athletes affected by heart disease?
Marla Ahlgrimm: Yes, and in fact, women who overexert themselves to the point where menstruation stops stress their bodies and experience diminished estrogen levels.
Q: Why did the study focus specifically on women?
Marla Ahlgrimm: Until recently, heart disease was considered a man’s condition, and women have historically been underrepresented in research trials relating to it.
Marla Ahlgrimm has dedicated her 30-year career to helping women overcome hormone related conditions. For more information, visit her online at marlaahlgrimm.com.