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Tragedies Cause Stress on Heart, Study Shows

Estimated read time: 2-3 minutes

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GAINESVILLE -- In the wake of a national tragedy on the scale of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, millions suffered from emotional heartache.

Now a new study from the University of Florida shows that an act of terrorism or a mass disaster can literally hurt the heart, particularly in the case of the many thousands who are prone to unstable heart rhythms, or arrhythmias.

In the study, UF researchers teamed up with scientists at St.

Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York, who had earlier found an increase in arrhythmias among patients living in the metropolitan area in the month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The Gainesville-based team found evidence that emotional stress on that level had physical consequences for the heart even among patients living far from Ground Zero who rely on a pacemaker-like device that corrects an erratic heart rhythm with an electric shock.

They found that in patients who saw their doctor for a routine monitoring of that device -- called an implantable cardioverter defibrillator or ICD -- there was a nearly three-fold increase in the number of shocks they received in the four weeks after the terrorist attacks. They presented their findings at the annual scientific meeting of the American College of Cardiology in New Orleans Monday.

"This is the first time after a tragedy has occurred in our country that anybody has looked to see whether it affects patients all around the country," said Dr. Omer Shedd, a postdoctoral fellow in cardiovascular medicine in UF's College of Medicine.

"There are some data to suggest that a lot of arrhythmias are anxiety driven," Shedd said. "When people become anxious, the levels of certain hormones in the body increase, and that can trigger rhythm problems and heart problems." An estimated 400,000 Americans die from unstable heart rhythms each year. An additional 80,000 receive an ICD, which halts dangerously rapid rhythms by giving the heart a small electrical jolt.

For this study, UF researchers reviewed the medical records of 132 Floridians, mostly men, who were seen for routine checkups at UF or Gainesville's Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the month before or the month after Sept. 11, 2001.

In all, 11 percent of those in the study had abnormal heart rhythms in the month after 9-11, compared with 3.5 percent in the month before.

"These data provide real-world evidence that stress affects both the mind and the heart," said UF psychologist Sam Sears Jr. of the College of Public Health and Health Professions.

"Even witnessing a national tragedy has a similar effect as experiencing a tragedy." Dr. Anne B. Curtis, a professor of cardiovascular medicine, adds that the key is to get at-risk patients the psychological help they might need to cope with stressful events.

"We need to reassure patients that (an increase in arrhythmias) may simply be related to the stress of the situation," Curtis added.

(DIANE CHUN writes for The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun) Editor Notes: NONE

c.2004 NYT Regional Newspapers


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