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Can Changing the Clock Hurt Your Heart?

New studies focus on how 'stressors' including 'springing ahead' and noise boost risk of heart attack and stroke 

Woman pressing snooze button on early morning digital alarm clock.

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Taking care of your ticker means watching the usual suspects: diet, exercise, and other habits like drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. Turns out there are a number of sneaky risk factors, too. While typically not as critical to your personal health, together they indicate how sensitive your heart health may be to stress from quite a few outside sources. Specifically, new research presented at the American Heart Association’s 2018 Scientific Sessions suggests that stressors such as noise, crime, trauma and even the start of daylight saving time can raise your risk for cardiovascular disease. Read on for more about these surprising culprits.

Crime statistics

Living in a crime-ridden neighborhood raises your risk for high blood pressure, a precursor to heart disease. No surprise: If you’re worried about being a potential victim every time you leave home, it stands to reason your stress levels will soar, taking your blood pressure along for the ride. What is surprising: A preliminary study at the University of Chicago found the same to be true even for people who live in a safe neighborhood amid a crime surge happening elsewhere in the same city. “We know that chronic stress and anxiety create what we call allostatic load [wear and tear on the body], which can impact heart health over time,” says study author Elizabeth Tung, an internist and instructor at the University of Chicago. But the study, which took place in Chicago during an uptick in crime from 2014 to 2016, also found there were more missed doctor appointments during that period, suggesting that people — even those living in safe neighborhoods — were reacting by altering their daily activities. “The low-crime neighborhoods actually had a larger increase in blood pressure compared to the high-crime neighborhoods,” Tung says. “We speculate that in neighborhoods with already high crime rates, the rise in violent crime was relatively small compared to what folks already had to deal with on a regular basis. But for low-crime neighborhoods, the rise in violent crime was a relatively new stressor and people were extremely anxious about it.” 

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is something normally associated with rape survivors or returning combat vets. But it’s also common among people who’ve experienced cardiac arrest, an abrupt and often fatal loss of heart function. In a preliminary study, patients who had experienced cardiac arrest and showed signs of PTSD were at significant risk of another major cardiovascular event and death up to a year later. “Medical advances have made cardiac arrest a survivable event, but 1 in 3 survivors screen positive for PTSD as they leave the hospital,” says study coauthor Sachin Agarwal, a neurologist and assistant professor of neurology in neurocritical care at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons in New York. “Compelling preliminary data suggest that patients’ psychological response to cardiac arrest may powerfully influence whether they will have a cardiovascular event or die within the year.”


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Daylight saving time

As if losing an hour of sleep weren’t bad enough, research shows that the start of daylight saving time — when most people are required to “spring forward” — raises your risk of heart attack. Now a preliminary study suggests that people with A-fib (short for atrial fibrillation), the most common type of irregular heartbeat, may be at particular risk. Researchers at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx looked at the records of almost 6,300 patients who were admitted to the hospital for A-fib over a seven-year period. They found that the number of admissions for A-fib in the days following the springtime switch to daylight saving jumped from 2.56 per day, on average, to 3.13 per day. While the exact link isn't clear, says researcher Jay Chudow, an internal medicine resident at Montefiore Health System, “The relationship between the circadian rhythm — the body’s internal clock — and the body’s organ systems, including the cardiovascular system, is quite complex. When this relationship is altered by changes in the clock, it can act as a stress on the body and trigger an event.” 

Environmental noise

Scientists have known for some time that constant exposure to environmental noise — such as living near a major highway — raises your risk for heart attacks and strokes. But they didn’t fully understand why. A preliminary study at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston suggests the brain plays a key role. Study participants with an average age of 56 with the greatest exposure to loud noises had higher levels of activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that helps regulates stress — and that in response to it triggers inflammation in the arteries, a well-known risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Those participants also had a greater than threefold risk of suffering a heart attack or a stroke compared with people who had lower levels of noise exposure. “Our study shows that noise is related to cardiovascular disease independently of other cardiovascular risk factors,” says internist Azar Radfar, a nuclear cardiology fellow at Mass General, who notes that risk went up when one's 24-hour noise level registered higher than that of a workplace conversation.

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