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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

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Panic Attacks May Increase Heart Risk

More Heart Attacks Seen in Older Women
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 1, 2007 -- Older women who experience panic attacks appear to have an increased risk for having heart attacks or heart-related death, new research suggests.

Postmenopausal women in the study who reported at least one full-blown panic attack within six months of being interviewed were four times as likely as other older women to have a heart attack or related death over the next five years.

They were three times as likely to have either a heart attack, heart-related death, or stroke, and nearly twice as likely to die from any cause.

Earlier studies have implicated depression as a risk factor for heart disease, but the new research is the first to suggest a direct link between anxiety-related panic attacks and heart attack and stroke risk.

Harvard Medical School associate professor of psychiatry Jordan W. Smoller, MD, ScD, who led the study team, says more research is needed to confirm the finding.

"There is not a lot of previous evidence suggesting that panic attacks are in themselves dangerous (in terms of heart risk)," he tells WebMD. "Our study does not resolve the question. But it does suggest that older women with a recent history of panic attacks may warrant closer scrutiny for cardiovascular complications."

Panic Attacks and Heart Attacks

The study included 3,369 healthy postmenopausal women participating in the larger ongoing Women's Health Initiative (WHI) trial examining risk factors for heart disease and other health outcomes among older women.

When they entered the study between 1997 and 2000, the women, whose average age was 66, were asked if they had recently experienced a panic attack. They were then followed for an average of 5.3 years.

At enrollment, one out of 10 women reported having had a full-blown panic attack within six months.

After adjusting for the impact of other established cardiovascular risk factors, a recent panic attack was associated with a fourfold increased risk of heart attack or heart-related death and a twofold increase in death from any cause.

The findings are published in the October issue of the journal Archives of General Psychiatry. The research was funded by Glaxo Wellcome, now the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline.

"Our study adds panic attacks to the list of emotional states and psychiatric symptoms that have been linked to excess risk of cardiovascular disease and death," the researchers wrote.

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