Linking Daily Stress Processes and Laboratory-Based Heart Rate Variability in a National Sample of Midlife and Older Adults

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Abstract

Objective

This study evaluates the associations between people's trait-like patterns of stress in daily life (stressor frequency, perceived stressor severity, affective reactivity to stressors, and negative affect) and laboratory-assessed heart rate variability (HRV).

Methods

Data were collected from 909 participants aged 35 to 85 years in the Midlife in the United States Study. Participants reported negative affect and minor stressful events during telephone interviews on 8 consecutive evenings. On a separate occasion, HRV was measured from electrocardiograph recordings taken at rest during a laboratory-based psychophysiology protocol. Regression models were used to evaluate the associations between daily stress processes and three log-transformed HRV indices: standard deviation of R-R intervals (SDRR), root mean square of successive differences (RMSSD), and high-frequency power (high-frequency HRV [HF-HRV]). Analyses were adjusted for demographics, body mass index, comorbid conditions, medications, physical activity, and smoking.

Results

Stressor frequency was unrelated to HRV (r values ranging from −0.04 to −0.01, p values >.20). However, people with greater perceived stressor severity had lower resting SDRR (fully adjusted B [standard error {SE}] = −0.05 [0.02]), RMSSD (−0.08 [0.03]), and HF-HRV (−0.16 [0.07]). Individuals with more pronounced affective reactivity to stressors also had lower levels of all three HRV indices (SDRR: B [SE] = −0.28 [0.14]; RMSSD: −0.44 [0.19]; HF-HRV: −0.96 [0.37]). Furthermore, aggregated daily negative affect was linked to reduced RMSSD (B [SE] = −0.16 [0.08]) and HF-HRV (−0.35 [0.15]).

Conclusions

In a national sample, individual differences in daily negative affect and responses to daily stressors were more strongly related to cardiovascular autonomic regulation than the frequency of such stressors.

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