Panic Attacks a Risk Factor for Heart Attacks
> 10/2/2007 11:35:26 AM

Someone experiencing chest pains, shortness of breath, a racing pulse, and terrifying anxiety may believe they are having a heart attack, but these are also the symptoms of a panic attack. Panic attacks often occur suddenly, do not last long, and may be symptoms of an anxiety disorder, such as panic disorder, which is characterized by frequent panic attacks. Women are more likely than men to suffer from panic attacks, and a recent study investigated the implications of panic attacks in women. Panic attacks are commonly mistaken for heart attacks, but the researchers also found that panic attacks can be a predictor of heart attacks in post-menopausal women.
The study, led by Dr. Jordan Smoller of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, involved over 3,000 post-menopausal women between the ages of 51 and 83. The women filled out a questionnaire about their history of panic attacks and were then followed for an average of five years. Ten percent of the women had experienced a panic attack during the six months previous to the study, and four percent of this group had a heart attack or stroke within five years of entering the study. Only two percent of the women without a history of panic attacks had a heart attack or stroke. After adjusting for other risk factors of cardiac problems, including smoking, high blood pressure, and depression, the researchers found that the risk for having a heart attack or stroke within five years was three times greater for women with a history of panic attacks than for those without a history of panic attacks. The study was not intended to discover why the risk for these women is greater, but the researchers speculate that panic attacks create problems with heart rhythm or cause a greater production of stress hormones that affect the heart.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in America, but women tend to underestimate their level of risk and are less likely to seek out and receive treatment for heart attacks. The knowledge that panic attacks may indicate heart problems can allow doctors to target those most at risk for heart attacks and stroke and help them to lower their chances. This study also reminds us that panic attacks are only one of many psychiatric symptoms that may lead to serious health problems: anxiety, depression, and hostility have also been linked with heart disease. More research can help us to better understand why panic attacks and other mental conditions appear to be so harmful for the heart.

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