TUESDAY, April 24 (HealthDay News) -- Heart blood flow increases in men when they experience mental stress, but does not change in women, a small new study suggests.

The finding may explain why women are more likely than men to have heart trouble when they suffer emotional distress, the Penn State College of Medicine researchers said.

The investigators measured heart rate, blood pressure and heart blood flow in 17 healthy adults -- a near-equal mix of men and women -- at rest and while they did three minutes of mental arithmetic. In order to increase the stress of doing the math task, the researchers urged the participants to hurry up or informed them they were wrong even when they gave the right answer.

At rest, men and women showed little difference in heart rate, blood pressure and heart blood flow. During the math task, all the participants had increases in heart rate and blood pressure. Heart blood flow also increased in men during the stressful task, but did not change in women.

The study was slated for Tuesday presentation at the Experimental Biology meeting, in San Diego.

The findings suggest that women may be more susceptible to heart problems while under stress and could explain why women tend to have more heart troubles after stressful events, such as losing a spouse, study leader Chester Ray said.

The results also underscore how mental stress can affect health.

"Stress reduction is important for anyone, regardless of gender, but this study shines a light on how stress differently affects the hearts of women, potentially putting them at greater risk of a coronary event," Ray said in an American Physiological Society news release.

He added that further research on the mechanism behind this difference between women and men could someday lead to more targeted treatments and prevention efforts for women at risk of coronary artery disease.

Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Women's Health has more about stress and health.