Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Beat: Traffic, anger strain the heart

Heart Beat

Traffic, anger strain the heart

Sitting in traffic is tough on the nerves. It could also be hard on the heart.

Researchers interviewed nearly 1,500 heart attack survivors living in the region of Germany around Augsburg. They were asked about what they had been doing in the four days before their heart attacks. About 8% said they had been stuck in traffic a few hours prior to the attack. The lingering effect of traffic seemed to be worse in women and those with the chest pain known as angina (American Heart Association epidemiology meeting, March 2009).

What could be the connection between traffic and heart attacks? Two leading theories involve anger or stress, and air pollution. Sitting in traffic makes some people mad, especially if they're surrounded by drivers cutting in and weaving out. Others get stressed. Anger and stress have been linked to spasms of coronary arteries, the sudden disruption of cholesterol-filled plaque, and the initiation of unstable heart rhythms, any of which can trigger a heart attack. Air pollution is another possible culprit. Tiny particles from automobile and truck exhaust can fire up inflammation, promote the formation of blood clots, increase the fragility of cholesterol-filled plaques, and contribute to heart-rhythm abnormalities.

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