RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The stress of a political election season can significantly raise your risk of cardiac arrhythmia, according to a study published Thursday and co-authored by a doctor from the University of North Carolina.
“We really thought there may be a link between the stressful political events and an increase in cardiac events,” said lead author Dr. Lindsey Rosman, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of cardiology at the UNC School of Medicine.
The study — published in the Journal of the American Heart Association — found a “significant increase” in arrhythmias during the election five years ago.
It looked at data from implanted cardiac devices — pacemakers and defibrillators — that year in 2,500 people from North Carolina, a swing state where citizens were subjected to negative political advertisements and volatile campaign speeches.
The study reviewed those data from three six-week time periods. The control periods covered fall 2015 and summer 2016, in addition to the weeks before and after the election in November 2016. The team found an increase of 77 percent in the risk of arrhythmia, in which the heart beats irregularly or at an abnormal speed, during the timeframe of the election compared to the control periods.
“It really just suggests that acute mental stress from a political election may have very serious consequences on our cardiovascular health,” she said.
Rosman says the study followed the case-crossover model, which makes it effective for determining those specific associations.
“The design actually is excellent in controlling for some of those other health factors that might influence risk for cardiac events,” Rosman said.
The researchers didn’t find any differences in stress levels between Republicans or Democrats, but did note that registered Democrats reported twice as many heart issues as Republicans did.
Rosman says that’s a trend they want to explore further in an even larger study that will encompass the entire nation looking at the contentious 2020 election and “really dig in a little bit more on the political affiliation as a potential risk marker for arrhythmia,” she said.
“Understanding the potential population health impact of these recurrent events is really important so that policies and perhaps rhetoric around these events may eventually change,” she said. “I think we’re one of the first studies to just really demonstrate the cost of these increases in our stress, politics. And we’re hoping that not only does this study lead to future studies, but also just raises people awareness of how stress can impact the risk for events.”
The study says the health impact of recurrent political events — like an election — is “non negligible and warrants further study.”
So what should you do if you find yourself stressed out by politics?
The study recommends stress management techniques like yoga and other cognitive-behavioral therapies that “have been shown to reduce mental stress and physiological arousal and improve health outcomes” in patients with cardiovascular disease.
It also suggest beta blockers could help reduce the effect of those stressors on arrhythmia reoccurrence.
“I think it’s very important, if individuals are experiencing stress and having difficulty managing it, we strongly encourage them to speak to a clinical health psychologist or a mental health professional,” Rosman said. “There are also medications, cognitive behavioral therapy — there are a lot of treatment options that can help folks manage stress more effectively, and may also risk reduce their risk of cardiac events.”