Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Beat: Panic attacks linked to heart disease

Heart Beat

Panic attacks linked to heart disease

A panic attack is an intense rush of fear or anxiety that can feel just like a heart attack, with chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, lightheadedness, and a racing or pounding heart. In fact, panic attacks are a common cause of so-called noncardiac chest pain, which is routinely seen by emergency room doctors.

It turns out that shared symptoms aren't the only connection. Researchers followed the health of 3,400 postmenopausal women for five years. The 10% or so of women who reported at least one panic attack in a six-month period before the study's start had four times the risk of heart attack, three times the risk of stroke, and twice the risk of dying from any cause as women who didn't have panic attacks. The absolute numbers are small: 3.9% of women who had panic attacks had a heart attack during the study, compared with 1.1% of those who didn't. But this study and others suggest two things:

  • If you suffer from panic attacks, protect your heart by striving mightily to get your cardiovascular risk factors (blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, smoking, etc.) under control.

  • If it feels like a heart attack, assume it is until proven otherwise.

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