HOW the heart handles anger seems to predict who's at risk for a life-threatening irregular heartbeat.
Negative emotions like hostility and depression have long been considered risks for developing heart disease, and deaths from cardiac arrest rise after disasters such as earthquakes.
But research released recently goes a step further, uncovering a pattern in the electrocardiogram (ECG) of certain heart patients when they recall a maddening event - an anger spike that foretold bad news.
In already vulnerable people, "anger causes electrical changes in the heart," said Dr Rachel Lampert, a Yale University cardiologist who led the work. When that happens, even in the doctor's office "that means they're more likely to have arrhythmias when they go out in real life".
At issue is cardiac arrest, when the heart's electrical system goes haywire and heartbeat abruptly stops. Survival requires a fast electrical shock from a device called a defibrillator.
To track anger's effect, Lampert gave ECGs to 62 patients who had defibrillators implanted in their chests because of preexisting heart disease. When they recounted something that had made them angry, some patients experienced beat-to-beat ECG alterations that were similar to irregular heartbeat-predicting alterations that doctors can spot during treadmill testing.
In other words, the emotional stress was producing a red flag like physical stress can. But it did so without causing the jump in heart rate that exercise does, suggesting anger's Adrenalin rush may act directly on heart cells.
The result: people whose ECGs showed a big anger spike were 10 times more likely to have their defibrillators fire a lifesaving shock in the next three years than similarly ill patients whose hearts didn't react to anger, Lampert reported in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Don't race out for an ECG. Nobody knows if anger has a similar electrical effect in people whose hearts aren't already diseased.
But that question should be studied, said Dr Nieca Goldberg, of the American Heart Association who wasn't involved with the research.
There's a clear connection between the heart and the head, that chronic negative emotions are somehow heart-damaging.
"But we haven't been able to explain why that happens. This is a step in the right direction," said Goldberg. - AP