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- According to new research, burnout, or chronic, unchecked stress at work or home, is now associated with atrial fibrillation, the clinical term for heart irregularity.
- The study looked at data from 11,445 people and found that regardless of gender or race, the people most at risk for heart irregularity were those who had classified themselves as the most stressed 23 years prior.
- Atrial fibrillation can increase the risk of stroke and heart failure. Past research has connected it to factors including age, high blood pressure, and obesity.
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We know burnout damages your personal life and mental health, but a new study has found evidence that it could damage your heart health as well.
The study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, used data from 11,445 people who were participants of the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study conducted between 1990 and 1992.
Participants were asked to self-report their levels of exhaustion in a questionnaire. Scientists then categorized the exhaustion into one of three categories: experiencing “vegetative” depressive symptoms like fatigue, “non-vegetative” symptoms like crying, and functional depressive symptoms like coping and being productive.
The researchers also measured their heart rates, which, back then, were all normal.
The results were divided into four quartiles, with people at the fourth quartile being the most stressed, based on their self-reporting.
Twenty-three years later, study author Dr. Parveen K. Garg of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and his team went through the medical records of the most stressed people. They used everything from electrocardiograms to hospital discharge coding of atrial fibrillation to death certificates to see what happened to the most stressed people. They found that 2,200 people, or 19.4% of their participants, had developed heart irregularities.
Regardless of gender or race, the people most at risk for heart irregularity were the people who classified themselves as the most stressed.
“This is the first study to look at actual levels of exhaustion and see what risks are involved,” Garg said. “We found that people who reported the most exhaustion had a 20% risk of developing atrial fibrillation, a risk that carried over for decades.”
Garg was quick to clarify that exhaustion here meant more than just needing a nap. It meant chronic, unchecked stress in your life, either at work or at home.
Atrial fibrillation can increase your risk of strokes and heart failure
Atrial fibrillation, the clinical term for heart irregularity may feel like your heart beating slow, chaotically, or unpredictably. According to the Mayo Clinic, having atrial fibrillation can increase your risk of stroke and heart failure.
There are 2.7 to 6.1 million Americans living with atrial fibrillation, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. It occurs so often that almost half of the risks causing it are still unknown, but common causes include old age, high blood pressure, and obesity.
Previous studies have found that anger and hostility were associated with irregular heartbeat, but only in men. Another study found that use of antidepressants was associated with irregular heartbeat in Danish men, as well as depressive symptoms.
The current study, however, did not find connections between anger, antidepressant use, or poor social support and development of atrial fibrillation.
It did, however, adds burnout or high stress levels to the list of potential AF causes. That makes sense, Garg said in a press release, because “vital exhaustion is associated with increased inflammation and heightened activation of the body’s physiologic stress response,” he said. “When these two things are chronically triggered that can have serious and damaging effects on the heart tissue, which could then eventually lead to the development of this arrhythmia.”
The current study, which included 25% African Americans, also helped expand current knowledge because most “European studies are exclusively white,” Garg said.
Still, the effects of atrial fibrillation on most non-white communities is unknown. Researchers have pointed out the effects of heart disease on the Hispanic community is understudied. And, according to this study by Michael K. D. Amponsah, there are “no reported studies of AF heritability in individuals of non-European and non-Asian ancestry.”
An expert says a lot more studies focused on burnout might be coming
Cardiologist Dr. Andrew Goldsweig, who was not involved in the study, told Insider the results are not too shocking.
“It’s important that we recognize that psychosocial factors like exhaustion are just as important as traditional risk factors when it comes to atrial fibrillation,” he said.
He said he foresees a lot of future studies on burnout coming, for two reasons. “Doctors like to study things which are relevant to doctors,” he said. “Burnout is a major issue in the medical community.” According to one report, at least half of the American medical community experiences symptoms of burnout due to work-life imbalance and exhaustion.
“And, we’re just starting to have good data on the effects of exhaustion,” Godsweig said.
For Garg, the current data underscores that “the importance of avoiding exhaustion through careful attention to – and management of – personal stress levels as a way to help preserve overall cardiovascular health cannot be overstated.”