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

Sin, Nancy L. PhD; Sloan, Richard P. PhD; McKinley, Paula S. PhD; Almeida, David M. PhD

doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000306

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.

Supplemental digital content is available in the text.

From the Center for Healthy Aging (Sin, Almeida), Departments of Biobehavioral Health (Sin) and Human Development and Family Studies (Almeida), The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania; Department of Psychiatry (Sloan, McKinley), Columbia University Medical Center, New York, New York; and Division of Behavioral Medicine (Sloan, McKinley), New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York, New York.

Supplemental Content

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Nancy L. Sin, PhD, Center for Healthy Aging, The Pennsylvania State University, 422 Biobehavioral Health Bldg, University Park, PA 16802. E-mail:

Received for publication May 7, 2015; revision received December 8, 2015.

Copyright © 2016 by American Psychosomatic Society
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