Friday, October 26, 2007

Panic attacks may lead to heart disease

New research suggests that postmenopausal women who have had at least one panic attack may be at greater risk for developing coronary heart disease or stroke.

Researchers found that women who reported panics attacks in the prior six months were four times at greater risk of cardiovascular events over a period of five years as compared to women who had not had a panic attack.

Jordan Smoller, MD, ScD, study author and assistant vice chairman of the department of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, explained that the study helps understand women’s health issues — an increasingly relevant topic as the population ages.

“We were interested in what effect anxiety, and panic anxiety in particular, had on women’s health because it is known that anxiety is associated with physiological effects,” said Smoller.
About the StudyThe recent study was published in the October issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry and included 3,369 women ages 51 to 83 years old. These generally healthy women completed questionnaires outlining their histories of panic attacks over the past six months.

Over about five years, researchers evaluated the women for coronary heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular events. Researchers adjusted the data to account for smoking history, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, weight, body mass index, alcohol use, and other relevant risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
About Panic AttacksPanic attacks are sudden episodes of fear or anxiety that are associated with physical symptoms including heart racing, palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, abdominal distress and fears of losing control.

“[This is] additional evidence that stress, while not yet accepted as a traditional cardiovascular risk factor, indeed is detrimental to cardiovascular health,” says Malissa Wood, MD, cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center. Wood continues, “We know that patients who experience panic attacks are much more likely to suffer from chronic anxiety and depression — both of which raise the stress hormones in the body and contribute to raising blood pressure, weight gain, and unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking and overeating.”
Ongoing ResearchSmoller explained that the study does not provide a causal connection between panic attacks and cardiovascular events. It is still unclear whether panic attacks are indirect markers or if they directly affect cardiovascular disease.

“[The study] may stimulate further research that can define what it is about anxiety and what is the causal connection between panic attacks and cardiovascular events,” said Smoller.

He hopes to see future research replicating these study results in other populations to further define the relationship between panic attacks and the heart.

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