Scientists have identified a gene variant related to stress that plays a major role in heart attacks. ernstl/Flickr

Scientists have identified a gene variant related to stress that plays a major role in heart attacks. 

The study published in the journal PLOS ONE found a 38 percent increased risk of heart attacks or death from heart disease in people with the genetic trait.

Researchers led by Redford B. Williams Jr. from the Duke University School of Medicine in the US based their study on previous studies that showed a variation in the DNA sequence known as single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP), in a gene that produces serotonin receptor and plays a major role in the hyperactive reaction to stress.

Studies have also shown that cortisol levels (stress hormone) in people who possessed the gene variant went up to alarming levels when exposed to stress.  High levels of cortisol have long been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.

In the new study, researchers looked at 6,100 white people, both men and women.  A significant number of the participants (13 percent) possessed the genetic variation. Researchers followed the participants for nearly six years. During the study period, heart attacks and deaths from heart diseases were reported comparatively high among the people with the stress gene.

Researchers hoped that their findings will help improve treatment and care for people with the genetic trait. "What this work suggests already is that we have a found genetic variant that can be easily identified, so we can begin to develop and test early interventions for those heart patients who are at high risk of dying or having a heart attack," senior author  of the study, Williams said in a news release.

"The exciting part to me this is that this genetic trait occurs in a significant proportion of people with heart disease," lead author of the study, Beverly H. Brummett, added. "If we can replicate this and build on it, we may be able to find ways to reduce the cortisol reaction to stress - either through behavior modification or drug therapies - and reduce deaths from heart attack."

The findings come at a time when nearly 17.3 million people die from heart diseases every year across the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), by the year 2030, nearly 23.3 million people are expected to die every year from cardiovascular diseases.