Gold SM, Zakowski SG, Valdimarsdottir HB, Bovbjerg DH.Recent research has linked exposure to chronic stress to altered acute stress responses and suggests a sensitizing effect of chronic stress leading to a stronger endocrine and cardiovascular response to acute stressors. Substantial evidence indicates that familial breast cancer risk is a chronic life stressor with higher levels of self reported distress. In this study, we investigated whether the endocrine response to a brief psychological stressor was stronger for women at familial risk for breast cancer. Thirty-six women at normal risk of breast cancer (FR- Stress Group) and 17 women at familial risk (FR+ Stress Group) underwent a brief psychological laboratory stress test (speech task and mental arithmetic) over a 15 min period. Thirty women at normal risk not subjected to the stressful task served as controls (FR- Control Group). Plasma epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol were measured at baseline, directly after the stress test (15 min) and at 30 min and 45 min post baseline. Heart rate data confirmed the effectiveness of the stress regimen. While there were no significant baseline group differences in the endocrine parameters, the response curves for the familial risk group revealed stronger epinephrine and cortisol reactivity to the stress test, as confirmed by significant group by time interactions. Norepinephrine levels showed a similar pattern, but results did not reach significance. These findings are in line with previous research documenting the facilitating effects of chronic stressors on acute stress response in animals and humans and provide the first evidence in the literature of a heightened endocrine reactivity to acute psychological stress in women at familial risk of breast cancer. The heightened endocrine reactivity to the experimental tasks seen here suggests that these women may experience stronger responses to stressors in their daily lives. According to the recently proposed concept of allostatic load, repeated overly strong stress responses may cumulatively have negative health implications.
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