March 1, 2004 -- Angry, hostile men actually do have hearts. But they may be unhealthy hearts, researchers say.
Anger and hostility raise men's risk of irregular heart rhythm -- a condition known as atrial fibrillation. It's the first time human emotions have been linked to atrial fibrillation in a long-term study. The 10-year data come from data on nearly 4,000 men and women in the huge Framingham Offspring study. Although participants ranged in age from 18 to 77, most were about 48 years old when the study began.
Hostile men were 30% more likely to develop atrial fibrillation than other men. The angriest men were 10% more likely to have abnormal heart rhythms and 20% more likely to die during the study. Men who experienced symptoms of anger -- such as shaking, headaches, or muscle tension -- were 20% more likely to have atrial fibrillation.
The study, led by Elaine D. Eaker, ScD, president of Eaker Epidemiology Enterprises in Chili, Wisc., appears in the March 16 issue of Circulation.
"Atrial fibrillation is usually seen in older people. This is not that: These hostile, angry men have an early type of atrial fibrillation," Eaker tells WebMD. "We always saw anger as a social problem, not as a physical health problem. But our research shows it is a risk to physical health."
The findings did not hold true for women. But that may be because men typically get heart disease at younger ages than women do. It may be that the study didn't last long enough to find the effects of anger and hostility in women.
Anger and Hostility, Not Type A Personality
It's become commonplace to think of people with "type A" personalities as having a higher risk of heart disease. But Eaker says it's wrong to lump all the type A personality traits together. Some of the type A characteristics -- feeling that time is of the essence, and being competitive -- were not related to atrial fibrillation or death in her study.
"Let's not put so much emphasis on type A personality as a risk factor for heart disease," Eaker says. "A much better way to think about this is to look at anger and hostility."
The angry men in the study have fiery tempers and are quickly annoyed. They endorse statements such as "I fly off the handle"; "When I get angry I say nasty things"; and "I get furious when criticized in front of others."
"We all get annoyed at times, but not like this," Eaker says. "It is a really hot tempered, aggressive kind of anger."
Hostile people generally feel contempt for others. They expect the worst and feel they must defend themselves against it. They agree with statements such as, "I have often met people who were supposed to be experts who were no better than me"; "I frequently have worked under people who arrange things so they get all the credit"; and "Some of my family members have habits that bother me and annoy me very much."
Eaker notes that while the huge number of people in the Framingham study make statistics very strong, there's a need to confirm and refine these findings in future studies.
However, she suggests that family doctors be on the lookout for anger and hostility in their patients. Referral to counseling -- such as anger-management classes or psychotherapy -- might be a good idea, she says.