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Threats you may not know of: Your heart really can be broken, frozen

Extreme temperature fluctuations, sudden bouts of activity and emotional strain all have the potential to disrupt the heart’s electrical circuitry, triggering an attack.

columns Updated: Mar 04, 2018 08:48 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
Heart attack,Heart disease,Takotsubo cardiomyopathy
Grief and anger are the biggest triggers of takotsubo cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome, with the risk being greatest within the first 24 hours of losing a loved one. (Pexels)

Along with threat of discomfort, dehydration and heatstroke, the long, hot summer ahead spells trouble for people with diagnosed or undiagnosed heart disease.

The risk factors for heart disease are well known — family history, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, inactivity, age, abdominal fat. So lowering risk with diet, exercise and regular health checks are a good start.

But even with risk factors under control, there are conditions and situations that can put sudden stress on the heart, and spark an attack.

Forewarned is forearmed, they say, so here are some situations to watch out for if you or those around you have a heart that’s not in the pink of health.

Temperature swings

A sudden spike or fall in outdoor temperature raises the risk of heart attack, said a study presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 67th Annual Scientific Session, on March 1. The study suggests that extreme weather events associated with global warming and climate change could potentially increase heart attacks in the future.

The study drew on data from more than 30,000 patients treated at 45 hospitals in Michigan, and found the risk of a heart attack increased by about 5 percentage points for every 5-degree Celsius jump in temperature differential — defined for the purpose of the study as the difference between the highest and lowest temperature recorded on a day. Swings of more than 25 degrees Celsius were associated with greatest risk to the heart.

Previous studies have also shown that outdoor temperature affects the heart’s health, with cold weather bringing the greatest risk of attacks by constricting arteries and raising blood pressure. Rapid and extreme fluctuations create stress that can make the sick collapse.

Sudden activity

Regular aerobic exercise, which includes running and brisk walking (at a speed of at least 5 km to 6 kmph), lowers your chances of having a heart attack by improving blood pressure, cholesterol levels and weight and elevating energy levels and mood. But it can spell trouble if the physical exertion is sudden and strenuous, especially in very hot or very cold weather.

Sudden stress leads to the release of adrenaline, a hormone that pushes up breathing, heart rate and blood pressure to key the body up for what it perceives as an imminent “fight or flight” event. This can strain your heart.

People who are not very active are at higher risk from sudden physical stress, as are people with more than one uncontrolled risk factors for heart disease.

Emotional shock

This is one cliché Bollywood films got right: people can die of shock, though most often not while clutching their chest. Extreme emotional shock, good or bad, can cause heart rate and blood pressure to spike and disrupt the heart’s electrical circuitry, triggering a heart attack.

Grief and anger are the biggest triggers of this condition, called takotsubo cardiomyopathy or “broken heart syndrome”, with the risk being the greatest within the first 24 hours of losing a loved one. The risk can remain for a month after an emotional loss.

A study of 1,750 patients with takotsubo cardiomyopathy in the US and Europe, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that 90% of those affected were women. People with this condition were twice as likely to have a neurological or psychiatric disorder as compared to patients with a typical heart attack, the study also found.

Anger is an independent risk factor for heart attacks too. Men who lose their temper easily are more likely to develop premature heart disease and five times more likely to have an early heart attack, found a study published in the journal, Archives of Internal Medicine.

Morning hours

Mornings are not only the part of the day when most heart attacks occur but also when they are likely to cause the most damage. Heart attacks occurring between 6 am and noon damage a greater area of heart tissue, reported a study in the journal, Heart. The study from Spain found that heart attacks in the morning caused about 20% more tissue damage than those occurring at other times of the day. It recommended that regardless of the time of day, the quicker the person having a heart attack was treated with clot-busting drugs and angioplasty to prop open blocked arteries, the less the damage would be to the heart muscle.

First Published: Mar 03, 2018 21:12 IST