Background The autonomic response to acute emotional stress can be highly variable, and pathological responses are associated with increased risk of adverse cardiovascular events. We evaluated the autonomic response to stress reactivity of young healthy subjects and aging subjects with coronary artery disease to understand how the autonomic stress response differs with aging. Methods Physiologic reactivity to arithmetic stress in a cohort of 25 young, healthy subjects (< 30 years) and another cohort of 25 older subjects (> 55 years) with CAD was evaluated using electrocardiography, impedance cardiography, and arterial pressure recordings. Stress-related changes in the pre-ejection period (PEP), which measures sympathetic activity, and high frequency heart rate variability (HF HRV), which measures parasympathetic activity, were analyzed as primary outcomes. Results Mental stress reduced PEP in both groups (p<0.01), although the decrease was 50% greater in the healthy group. Mean HF HRV decreased significantly in the aging group only (p = 0.01). Discussion PEP decreases with stress regardless of health and age status, implying increased sympathetic function. Its decline with stress may be attenuated in CAD. The HF HRV (parasympathetic) stress reactivity is more variable and attenuated in younger individuals; perhaps this is related to a protective parasympathetic reflex. Trial registration ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT02657382.
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