If a caller upsets you, do you hurl the phone across the room? Do you curse
and blast the horn furiously if the driver in front of you takes three seconds
to notice the green light? An angry temperament can hurt more than
relationships -- anger and heart disease may go hand in hand, according to
"You're talking about people who seem to experience high levels of anger
very frequently," says Laura Kubzansky, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor at the
Harvard School of Public Health who has studied the role of stress and emotion
on cardiovascular disease.
An enlarged heart (cardiomegaly) can have various causes. But it's usually caused by high blood pressure (hypertension) or coronary artery disease.
An enlarged heart may not pump blood effectively, resulting in congestive heart failure. Cardiomegaly may improve over time. But most people with an enlarged heart need lifelong treatment with medications.
Moderate anger may not be the problem, she says. In fact, expressing one's
anger in reasonable ways can be healthy. "Being able to tell people that you're
angry can be extremely functional," she says.
But explosive people who throw things or scream at others may be at greater
risk, as well as those who harbor suppressed rage, she says. "Either end of the
continuum is problematic."
Gender doesn't appear to make much difference, she adds. "Once people are
chronically angry, men and women seem to be at equally high risk."
Scientists don't all agree that anger plays a role in heart disease, she
says. But many studies have suggested a significant link. "I think the case is
strong," Kubzansky says.
For example, one large study published in Circulation in 2000 found
that among 12,986 middle-aged African-American and white men and women, those
who rated high in traits such as anger -- but had normal blood pressure -- were
more prone to coronary artery disease (CAD) or heart attack. In fact, the
angriest people faced roughly twice the risk of CAD and almost three times the
risk of heart attack compared to subjects with the lowest levels of anger.
Anger may not be the only culprit in heart disease risk. Kubzansky's own
research suggests that other extreme, negative emotions may contribute, too.
"Anger is a problem, but so, too, are high levels of anxiety and depression.
They tend to co-occur. People who are angry a lot also tend to have other
chronic negative emotions as well.
Anger and Heart Disease: What's the Connection?
How might hotheads be hurting their hearts?
Scientists speculate that anger may produce direct biological effects on the
heart and arteries. Negative emotions, such as anger, quickly activate the
"fight-or-flight response." They also trigger the "stress axis," Kubzansky
says. "That's a slightly slower response, but it activates a cascade of
neurochemicals that are all geared toward helping you in the short run if
you're facing a crisis."
While these stress responses mobilize us for emergencies, they might cause
harm if repeatedly activated. "When they persist over time, they end up being
potentially damaging," she says.
For example, excessive amounts of stress hormones may speed up the process
of atherosclerosis, in which fatty plaques build up in arteries, Kubzansky