Study: Terror-related Stress Increases Heart-attack Risk

Condition over time increases pulse rates, a risk factor for cardiac disease.

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Emergency personnel evacuate a body at the scene of the Jerusalem synagogue terror attack, Tues, Nov. 18, 2014.
Emergency personnel evacuate a body at the scene of the Jerusalem synagogue terror attack, Tues, Nov. 18, 2014. Credit: Reuters

Stressing out about terror increases the risk of heart disease and heart attack, a new study by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers shows.

The study, published this week in the journal PNAS, demonstrated that fear of terror over the long term was a clear factor in increasing people’s pulse rates over time, and increased pulse rates are a risk factor for heart disease and heart attacks.

The research was conducted by Professor Hermona Soreq of Hebrew University’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences, in conjunction with Dr. Shani Shenhar-Tsarfaty and Professor Yaacov Ritov of the university’s Statistics Department and the Center for the Study of Rationality.

The researchers monitored the changes in heart rate of 17,300 men and women from 2002 to 2011 and analyzed the results over the past three years.

The subjects were healthy people who were sent each year for a general medical workup. The researchers sought to determine whether an increase in heart rate over time was influenced by psychological factors like worrying about terror or existential fears.

“We asked the subjects, ‘Are you afraid of terror?’ and ‘Do you feel as if you have control over your life?’” explained Soreq.

Over the period, 4.1 percent of those examined recorded sharp increases in their average heart rates over time, from 60 beats a minute to 80 beats a minute. The researchers found that the increase in heart rates significantly matched those people who had reported that they lived in fear of terror and felt they had little control over their lives.

Moreover, the relationship between the clinical findings and the psychological factor was more significant that than of any other common denominator among those with increased heart rates, like age, underlying illnesses, genetics and more.

“We identified 325 parameters and examined each of them statistically,” said Shenhar-Tsarfaty. “Existential fear and fear of terror was the most prominent common denominator.”

The study also examined how the brain reports expected danger to the rest of the body. This was done using a blood test that examined the functioning of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is involved in responses to stress and serves to restrict inflammatory responses.

“We found that fear of terrorism and existential anxiety can disrupt the control processes provided by acetylcholine and cause chronic acceleration of the pulse rate,” said Soreq.

“Together with inflammation, these changes increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. In other words, the neurotransmitter’s functioning is also undermined by fear of terror, and the ability of the body to protect itself from a heart attack decreases, raising the mortality risk.”

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