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Enron's Ken Lay Dies, Was It Stress?

News Reports Cite Possible Heart Attack
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 5, 2006 -- Convicted Enron founder Ken Lay died today in Aspen, Colo., reportedly of a heart attackheart attack.

Initial autopsy results show severe coronary artery disease and evidence of a prior heart attack, a forensic pathologist from the hospital where Lay was taken said, during a news conference. Final autopsy results are pending.

Lay, 64, was due to be sentenced in October after being convicted of 10 counts of conspiracy and fraud in the Enron trial in May. He faced 25 to 40 years in prison. The fall of Enron became one of the biggest corporate scandals in U.S. history.

WebMD spoke with cardiologist Robert Myerburg, MD, about the role stressstress may play in heart attacks. Myerburg is a professor of medicine and physiology in the cardiology division of the University of Miami's medical school. Myerburg is not familiar with Lay's medical history.

Long-Term Stress & Heart Risks

Heart attacks and sudden death have been studied in relation to long-term stress and short-term (acute) stress, Myerburg tells WebMD.

He describes long-term stress as spanning "a number of years," such as a "stressful job or a stressful environment throughout one's life." Myerburg says "there are some data that says that stress over the long term can… contribute to risk of heart attack and sudden death."

He notes that long-term stress "may increase the probability" of those problems, "as opposed to being the cause." In other words, long-term stress may make heart attack or sudden death more likely but probably aren't the sole cause of such problems.

Sudden Stress & Heart Problems

Short-term stress unfolds in "minutes to hours," Myerburg says.

For instance, he notes that when Los Angeles experienced an earthquake in 1994, the L.A. area had three to four times the number of heart attacks and cardiac arrests than would have been expected on any given day.

But over the next two or three weeks, L.A.'s heart attacks and sudden deaths were lower than normal, Myerburg says. The theory, he explains, is that the earthquake caused a spike in heart attacks and sudden deaths among people who were on the verge of those problems.

"One of the biggest challenges is unrecognized heart disease," Myerburg says. He points out that "in a third of sudden deaths, sudden death is the first clinical manifestation of heart disease." Those victims had had no previous warning their hearts weren't healthy.

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