ARE YOU LOOKING after your amygdala? No, we didn’t know we had one either. The amygdala is a small group of cells deep inside the medial temporal lobe (roughly, on the side of your head above the ear). The cells are in the shape of an almond – hence the name “amygdala”, which is Latin for almond. Just as you have two ears, so you have two amygdalae – one on each side.
Your two little amygdalae respond to any stress you feel by preparing the body to respond. The response is often referred to as “fight or flight”: the body must deal with the danger by standing and fighting or by running away. It has long been known that stress is linked with poor cardiac health, up to and including heart attacks. Now two studies have confirmed the link and suggested a cause.
Scientists believe that a worried amygdala tells the bone marrow to make more white blood cells – which then cause the arteries which carry blood through the body to become inflamed. It is these inflamed arteries which can trigger heart attacks or strokes.
The theory comes with a health warning. The two studies which linked higher amygdala activity related to stress and cardio-vascular disease were very small: one following 22 patients and the other just 13. However, although more work needs to be done, there is no need for the medical profession to delay helping patients who are experiencing stress, before they go on to develop cardio-vascular disease.
That, then, leads to the crucial question: how do we reduce stress? Some doctors have suggested that the physical effects of stress – jumpy amalgdalae and those inflamed arteries – could be used as an early warning diagnostic tool to find people whose stress levels are putting them at risk. Other doctors who have spoken out since the studies’ conclusions were announced have been speaking about stress management – putting the onus back on the patient him or herself to deal better with the stress they are experiencing.
A more enlightened approach may be for politicians to take time out of debating NHS budgets and look at what causes stress. Some people experience stress because of unavoidable factors, such as a loved one being ill or friends having problems. Most people, however, experience stress because of the problems of modern life: how to make ends meet, lack of security over where they live or worry over whether their job will last. It is down to politicians to fix these problems, not medics. And that should really stress us out.