Researchers combine knowledge to understand stress, heart disease

Stress and its role in heart disease was the focus of a one-day conference, “The Summer Institute for Psychophysiological Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease: Theories and Methods,” held in August. The conference was developed by William Gerin, professor of biobehavioral health.

“We’re aware that stress has a lot to do with chronic illness. The question is why—what are the biological, social, and environmental factors involved,” said Gerin.  High levels of stress can increase a person’s risk for heart disease, and the presence of heart disease can make a person vulnerable to further health complications.

Gerin brought together researchers from various disciplines at Penn State (biobehavioral health, kinesiology, and psychology) -- as well as researchers from other institutions and organizations, such as the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; Syracuse University; and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) -- to discuss issues related to the role of stress as it affects several of the body’s physiological systems that contribute to cardiovascular disease. The conference was funded in part by the College of Health and Human Development.

Interdisciplinary collaboration is especially important for cardiovascular research because “cardiovascular disease isn’t a disease that only impacts the heart. It influences many systems and is affected by many systems,” said Catherine Stoney, program director at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which is a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Stoney presented a lecture at the conference about the need for multiple measurements and attention to multiple systems of the body in cardiovascular research.

“I wanted to bring together people in the field of stress psychophysiology to understand the array of related biological symptoms, so that we could foster true interdisciplinary training,” says Gerin. “We need a mechanism designed to deliberately foment interactions. It’s all about collaborating.”

Other attendees spoke on various topics such as nature, nurture, and networking (the keynote address given by Gerald McClearn, Evan Pugh professor of biobehavioral health), social interactions and stress, ways to measure stress and heart disease, and self-reported data collection techniques.

Gerin will be holding the conference again in summer 2011. He hopes to expand it to three days, which will allow him to bring in researchers from a broader range of disciplines, including statistics and neuroimaging.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010