Thanks to medical advances, many people are surviving heart attacks that years ago would have killed them. But along with their survival, many are experiencing an unwanted side effect. That side effect is the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD, a psychological condition marked by debilitating fear and anxiety. PTSD affects patient's mental well being and has been found to double their mortality rate from a second heart attack.

Stress Studies

In a new study analyzing findings from 24 earlier stress-related studies, scientists at Columbia University Medical Center found that more than 10% of heart attack survivors developed PTSD. They also discovered that the presence of the psychological condition contributed to poorer survival outcomes from a subsequent heart attack for the affected patients.

Recognizing the emotional toll that a heart attack can have on an individual, the researchers sought to explore heart attack-induced PTSD specifically, as the condition is often under-diagnosed among this group.

“I think that the broader cardiology community and medical community haven't really paid attention to this issue," noted lead study author Donald Edmondson in an interview with the New York Times.


PTSD is an anxiety disorder triggered by a traumatic, life-threatening event. The condition may develop regardless of whether or not someone is actually hurt. Traumatic experiences may include combat exposure, car accidents, abuse, violent crimes, kidnapping, rape and natural disasters.

Those who survive a cardiac emergency may suffer from anxiety about their health, resulting in extreme attention to every heartbeat, ache and discomfort out of fear of a recurrence. They may also experience typical PTSD symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, sleep problems, isolation, angry outbursts, difficulty concentrating, and avoidance of places or people that remind them of the event.

The researchers found that patients who experienced invasive thoughts, characteristic of PTSD, had double the risk of dying from another heart attack over the next one to three years, as compared to their counterparts who did not develop the disorder. One possible explanation may be that in trying to avoid any reminder of the event, the emotionally-traumatized heart attack patients may not have been taking their medications, inadvertently making their worst fears come true.

Those at Risk

The factors that influenced patients' likelihood of developing PTSD were not related to how severe their heart attacks were, but rather to their age and emotional state. The younger the individual was when he had his first heart attack and the greater his feeling of danger, the better his chance of developing the mental condition.

Noting that these traumas occur primarily in emergency rooms, Dr. Emondson told the New York Times, “We are interested now in trying to determine whether there are ways to alter that environment to decrease perceptions of life threat and lack of control so we can reduce the incidence of PTSD in the first place."

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Michele Rosenthal
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