Last updated: Sep 25, 2008

If you think the current economic crisis is hurting only your pocketbook, think again. Researchers say the decline of Wall Street, the mortgage crisis, and the looming threat of layoffs may take a heavy toll on your heart, especially if you are already at risk for cardiac problems.

"Financial stress can cause your whole cardiovascular system to be off," says Louise Hawkley, PhD, associate director of the Social Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Chicago. "Elevated stress hormones constrict the blood vessels and create a vicious cycle where blood scrapes the cells and aggravates atherosclerotic plaque, which increases your risk for a cardiovascular event like a heart attack."

She adds that new research suggests the social isolation of being laid off from a job can compound the problem. One study found that older workers who lost their jobs had a two-fold increase in the risk for subsequent heart attack and stroke.

Financial stress also contributes to behavior proven to increase heart disease risk. Smokers, for example, are 13% less likely to quit during economic hard times, and ex-smokers are more likely to relapse. Drinkers tend to drink more, which drives up blood pressure, and alcoholics who have quit drinking are more prone to relapse when exposed to chronic stress. "People also eat less heart-healthy foods during times of stress—more sweets and carbohydrates," adds Redford Williams, MD, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University.

So what can you do if the bad economy has you worried about your ticker? First, don't catastrophize. Take stock of your own situation and make sure you are not panicked about something that hasnt happened yet. But if your situation is dire, it's crucial not to isolate yourself. "Sharing concerns with friends and getting some social support can make your stress hormones go down and improve your health," says Dr. Williams, who also recommends exercise, yoga, and meditation.

However, he adds, the situation is serious, and stress researchers don't have all the answers. "You can run all you want and meditate all you want, but if you don't have the money to pay the bills, you are really stuck."