Are elections stressful enough to cause a heart attack?


He won?!: A study finds that shocking election results can impact the health health of a community. — dpa

When Donald Trump first won the US presidential election four years ago (2016), many around the world were left shaken up for days.

A medical journal is now asking whether news of that political event had any immediate health impacts.

The answer is yes, there was a noticeable increase in the number of people hospitalised in southern California due to cardiovascular diseases in the two days following the election that took place on Nov 8, 2016, say researchers from Harvard University and Kaiser Permanente in the United States.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on Oct 12 (2020), used data from Kaiser Permanente, a company that operates hospitals and doctors’ practices, providing medical care to 4.6 million people in southern California.

The researchers focused on diagnoses of heart attacks and strokes in adults, and people reporting to accident and emergency departments with cases of chest pain and acute coronary syndrome.

In the two days right after the 2016 election, 94 people in the area were hospitalised due to cardiovascular problems, up from 58 during the same weekdays just before the election.

That suggests a 62% increase in admissions in the days following the election.

“In our diverse patient population, which reflects southern California as a whole, we saw that the risk of heart attack increased after the 2016 election, regardless of gender, age and ethnic group,” says lead author Dr Matthew Mefford of Kaiser Permanente.

”This is a wake-up call for all medical professionals to pay more attention to the ways that stress directly related to political campaigns, political rhetoric and election results can damage people’s health,” says co-author Prof David Williams of Harvard University.

This is definitely possible, according to Prof Karl-Heinz Ladwig, research chief for psycho-cardiology at the department of psychosomatic medicine and psychotherapy at Munich’s Technical University in Germany.

But he was critical of the time period that the study covered, saying that window seemed somewhat artificial.

If you examine the data more closely, he says, the results look pretty different in the four-day period after the election (versus two days), when compared with the same days the week before.

But the research clearly supports the conclusion that life-changing events on a national level are not simply shrugged off by the population, but are a major source of stress to many.

Prof Ladwig referred to another study, by Munich cardiologist Dr Ute Wilbert, who looked at the effects of the World Cup football championship in 2006.

The number of people brought to hospital due to heart attacks or heart rhythm problems was 2.7 times higher when Germany was playing a match, compared to years without the championship.

The figures were similar following natural disasters, such as earthquakes in Los Angeles, US, in 1994 and in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2011, or the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, US, on Sept 11, 2001.

Prof Ladwig, a member of the German Heart Foundation’s scientific advisory board, says such acute stress can cause heart attacks or other symptoms.

However, those affected are usually people who have already suffered similar conditions, he says, with the stress acting as a trigger.

The pandemic is also a source of stress, the study’s authors say, something Prof Ladwig says is supported by a number of other pieces of research. – Alice Lanzke/dpa

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