(CBS NEWS) -- Doctors have long known that a stressed life does no favors for the heart, and new research may help unravel why that’s so.

A Harvard team says heightened activity in a key part of the brain may explain why stress boosts people’s odds for heart disease and stroke.

The finding “raises the possibility that reducing stress could produce benefits that extend beyond an improved sense of psychological well-being,” said study lead author Dr. Ahmed Tawakol, who co-directs the cardiac imaging program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

One neurologist agreed that the research could have real value for patients.

“This study provides information that can help us better understand the mechanisms in which the body and the brain affect each other,” said Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein. He is president of the Brain & Behavior Foundation in New York City.

“A better understanding of this link can help us develop methods of prevention” of heart disease, Borenstein said.

According to Tawakol’s team, smoking, high blood pressure and diabetes are well-known risk factors for heart disease and stroke, as is chronic mental stress.

But what exactly is the link between stress and the heart? To find out, the researchers tracked the health of nearly 300 people for an average of about four years. During that time, 22 were diagnosed with a heart attack, angina (chest pain), heart failure, stroke or peripheral artery disease (poor circulation in the legs).

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