Angry outbursts may raise heart attack, stroke risk

Getting really angry might be more dangerous than you think.

A new study found people who experienced severe anger outbursts were more at risk for cardiovascular events in the two hours following the outbursts compared to those who remained calm.

“The relative risk was similar for people who had known pre-existing heart disease and those who didn’t,” says Dr. Murray A. Mittleman, senior study author and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

The study was designed so that each patient was compared to his or her own baseline risk. “A person with pre-existing heart disease or cardiovascular disease, the absolute risk they are incurring is much greater than (that of) a person without cardiovascular disease or risk factors,” Mittleman says.

“If we look at somebody at higher risk for having cardiovascular events, and they get angry multiple times a day, this can lead to 650 extra heart attacks per year out of 10, 000 a year,” he says. “When we look at a person who is relatively low risk, but if they do have these episodes of anger fairly frequently, we estimate there would be about 150 extra heart attacks out of 10,000 a year.”

Smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, being overweight and having diabetes are all risk factors for cardiovascular disease. An estimated 17 million people worldwide die of cardiovascular diseases, particularly heart attacks and strokes, each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study published Monday in the European Heart Journal was a data analysis looking at nine studies where anger and cardiovascular events were self-reported over nearly two decades. The study found a 4.74 times higher risk of MI (myocardial infarction, or heart attack) or ACS (acute coronary syndrome, where the heart muscle doesn’t get enough oxygen-rich blood) following outbursts of anger.

“Anger causes our heart rate to increase through the sympathetic nervous system and causes our stress hormones to become elevated (the fight or flight mechanism),” says Dr. Mariell Jessup, president of the American Heart Association and medical director of the Penn Heart and Vascular Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “We breathe faster, all of which may trigger undesirable reactions in our blood pressure or in our arteries.”

This disruption may mean the heart or the brain doesn’t get the blood and oxygen they need resulting in a heart attack or a stroke, she says.

Researchers suggest more needs to be done to come up with effective interventions to prevent cardiovascular events triggered by anger outbursts. The American Heart Association suggests regular physical activity, finding a way to relax or talking with friends to help reduce stress and anger.

Mittleman suggests the best way to lower your risk for a heart attack or stroke during an angry outburst is to lower your overall baseline level of risk — exercise, eat healthy and don’t smoke — and then find ways to cope with stress and anger.

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