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Pauley Heart Center named as a recipient for $15 million research project on chronic stress and heart health

The American Heart Association awarded scientific research grants to teams from Virginia Commonwealth University, Ohio State University and the University of California, Davis to study how chronic stress affects cardiovascular health.

doctor holding a red, heart-shape In collaboration with the VCU Pauley Heart Center, teams of scientists will research how long-term, chronic stress causes heart problems. (Getty Images)

Chronic stress is recognized as an independent risk factor for the development of cardiovascular disease, and it is known to negatively impact the overall health of people living with heart disease. These stressors have both psychological and social components, including work, relationship or marriage difficulties, living in isolation, a lack of social support or basic resources, among others.

A multi-million dollar research project grant from the American Heart Association will allow VCU Health Pauley Heart Center, in partnership with Wake Forest University, to become one of three centers that will study these biological mechanisms of chronic stress that can increase the risk for cardiovascular disease. The $15 million in funding will be split among three institutions: Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Ohio State University and the University of California, Davis.

“We are incredibly grateful to the American Heart Association for being champions of this important work,” said Greg Hundley, M.D., chair of VCU School of Medicine’s Division of Cardiology in the Department of Internal Medicine and director of the Pauley Heart Center. “We are also thrilled to partner with the talented team at Wake Forest University on this shared mission.”

In collaboration with the Pauley Heart Center, teams of scientists from VCU, Wake Forest University and Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, will research how long-term, chronic stress causes heart problems and how adding acute stress – stress that occurs more suddenly, like getting a cancer diagnosis – may suddenly impact heart health.

“We experience so much stress on a daily basis and we know that stress can precipitate heart attacks, strokes and heart failure,” Hundley said. “So, we want to take a look at how stress promotes these types of events and what we can do to prevent it from happening.”

As part of their research, the teams will study what happens to heart cells damaged by stress and how this causes heart failure. Additionally, they’ll explore how different diet and exercise plans may impact stress and heart health, and whether it may be beneficial to make changes to these habits when experiencing stress to improve heart health function.

The four-year grant project, which began on April 1, 2023, includes a diverse team of more than 16 investigators from VCU and Wake Forest.

“Part of what makes this collaboration so unique and exciting is the level of expertise and diversity amongst the investigators from both VCU and Wake Forest,” Hundley said. “We are bringing together investigators representing different ethnicities, cultures, gender and stages in their careers. It’s truly a team effort.”