Anger-Induced Heart Attacks

Date: 03/18/2014    Written by: Beth Levine

Anger-Induced Heart Attacks

angry man

We all lose our cool sometimes. Whether it is a terrible driver cutting you off, your teenager's eye roll and nasty remark, a rude salesperson in a store, or some other combination of events that does you in, anger is a typical response for many people. And most of us probably consider that a normal reaction, as long as we don't completely fly off the handle or become violent. However, new research suggests that while this may be common behavior, it may not be healthy behavior--at least for your cardiovascular system.

The study, which was conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, found that a flare up of temper may raise the risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke.1 The scientists analyzed the data generated by nine different studies in which thousands of subjects responded to questions about their anger levels as well as medical backgrounds and any cardiovascular events that took place over a period of nearly 20 years.  They discovered that there appears to be a window of approximately two hours after an episode of anger during which the likelihood of having a heart attack or stroke is increased.  The risk of a heart attack is 4.74 times greater and the risk of stroke is more than three times greater during these two hours following an outburst than it was after a period of calm. This, of course, is in line with previous studies we have looked at which found that anger triggers abnormal heart rhythms that can lead to sudden heart attack.

The risk, as seen in the current study, seemed to depend on just how often the participants became enraged.  For people who only were angry once a month and had little evidence of cardiovascular disease, the risk was just one extra heart attack per 10,000 people annually, according to the researchers' calculations. Even in those with an elevated cardiovascular disease risk, one anger outburst per month only resulted in an extra four heart attacks per 10,000 people annually. But when they looked at those at the other end of the anger spectrum--people who felt angry several times each day--the outcome was in the ballpark of an additional 158 heart attacks per 10,000 people in those who have few cardiovascular risk factors. And in people with both a high cardiovascular risk and frequent temper outbursts, the scientists found that approximately an additional 657 heart attacks might take place per 10,000 people.

Considering the fact that so many individuals these days are considered at high risk for cardiovascular disease--with 49 percent of Americans having at least one of the three major risk factors2--that could potentially add up to thousands of unnecessary, preventable heart attacks every year.  Occurrences of anger cause the body to produce more cortisol, a hormone that is secreted during times of stress and that affects the immune system over time--but more importantly, causes an increase in blood pressure.  And a rise in blood pressure is a key risk factor in the development of heart disease. And, as was learned in a 2011 study at the University of California, San Diego, even a minor elevation can increase the risk of stroke.3

The good news is that many of the factors that may lead to heart disease are within your control. You can't change your family history of cardiovascular illness, but you can impact the other major contributors including smoking, being overweight, hypertension, and high cholesterol levels.  Quitting smoking is a must as it damages the heart, arteries, and blood vessels.  Making changes to your diet to eat lower calorie, more nutritious foods will help you lose weight and feel better.  And exercising can provide a two-fold advantage.  Regular physical activity not only improves fitness and speeds weight loss, but it will also lower your stress level, helping you cope with the things in life that raise your hackles and produce the outbursts. Plus, adding meditation, massage, yoga, or any number of other relaxation methods to your routine may be just the thing to promote a sense of calm that keeps your anger under wraps for good.

  • 1. Roberts, Michelle. "Angry people 'risking heart attacks'." BBC News. 3 March 2014. Accessed 9 March 2014.
  • 2. "Heart Disease Fact Sheet." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 26 July 2013. Accessed 11 March 2014.
  • 3. Lee, M.; et al. "Presence of baseline prehypertension and risk of incident stroke." Neurology. 4 October 2011. Accessed 11 March 2014.

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