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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An Angry Heart Can Kill You

A new study shows that electrical changes in the heart caused by anger or other kinds of mental stress can lead to future arrhythmias and sudden cardiac arrest in patients with implantable cardioverter defibrillators. (An ICD is a pacemaker-like device that monitors and maintains heart rhythm and also sends small shocks of electricity to stabilize an abnormal heartbeat; thousands of Americans have one, including former Vice President Dick Cheney.)
About three months after their ICDs were implanted, patients were asked to think about a recent situation in which they were angry or aggravated, and researchers analyzed the patients' T-wave alternans (TWA), a measure of the heart's electrical instability.
Strong emotions like anger increase sympathetic arousal, the authors explain, which influences TWA. In the study, led by Dr. Rachel Lampert, a professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, patients with higher anger-induced levels of TWA were more likely to later experience arrhythmias and receive shocks from their defibrillators; in fact, the risk of life-threatening arrhythmias was up to 10 times greater. "Emotion can precipitate ventricular arrhythmias," the researchers write, "and these findings suggest that emotion-induced increases in repolarization instability may link psychological stress to sudden death."
Lampert says more research is needed, "but these data suggest that therapies focused on helping patients deal with anger and other negative emotions may help reduce arrhythmias and, therefore, sudden cardiac death in certain patients."
The research will be published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. —Heather Wax