Hidden killers: Heart attack triggers revealed

7 September 2016

Intense grief and anger can be acute triggers for a potentially fatal heart attack, according to research by Associate Professor Thomas Buckley from Sydney Nursing School.

Intense states of high emotion such as grief or anger can trigger a heart attack says cardiovascular researcher Associate Professor Thomas Buckley who will speak at a health forum on little known causes of heart attacks featuring an expert panel from University of Sydney.

Dr Buckley’s research into the physical effects of intense grief has shown that people who had lost a partner or a child are at much higher risk of a heart attack - particularly in the early weeks of grieving.

 “We’ve been researching the link between acute emotional episodes and risk of severe cardiac episodes and have identified biological responses in bereavement that help explain how you could literally die of a broken heart,” said Dr Buckley, a researcher from Sydney Nursing School and Royal North Shore Hospital.

 “Coping with the death of a loved one can be incredibly difficult on an emotional level, and now we can see the physical impact as well.

“Our findings highlight the physical impact that emotion can have on your heart and the need to consider strategies to protect individuals most at-risk during times of intense grief.

"More effort needs to be placed on the health and welfare of bereaved survivors, particularly if they have a history of heart problems or experience cardiac symptoms. Our key message is not to ignore symptoms and put it down to ‘just grieving’,” he said.

Dr Buckley’s associated research into the effects of anger on the heart has found that the risk of a heart attack is 8.5 times higher in the two hours following an intense burst of anger.

"Our findings confirmed what has been suggested in prior studies and anecdotal evidence, even in films, that episodes of intense anger can trigger a heart attack," he said.

"The data shows that the higher risk of a heart attack isn't necessarily just while you're angry - it lasts for two hours after the outburst.”

In the study, ‘anger’ was qualified as 5 and above on a 1-7 scale, referring to ‘very angry, body tense, clenching fists or teeth, ready to burst’, up to ‘enraged, out of control, throwing objects’.

Two-thirds of the bursts of anger were associated with arguments with family members or others, while the remaining third were triggered by work and driving anger.

"Increased risk following intense anger is most likely due to higher heart rate, higher blood pressure, tightening of blood vessels and increased clotting, all associated with triggering heart attacks," Dr Buckley said.

“While the absolute risk of any one anger episode triggering a heart attack is low, our data demonstrates that the danger is real and still there.”

Dr Buckley added that improving general health by minimising other known cardiac risk factors, such as hypertension, high cholesterol or smoking would also lower risk of cardiac episodes.

Health Forum event details:

What: Sydney Ideas Health Forum: Five ways your heart can kill you that you didn’t know

When: 6pm – 7.30pm, Wednesday 7 September 2016

Where: Lecture Theatre 4002 (Messel), Sydney Nanoscience Hub, Physics Rd, University of Sydney

Register: Register here (free registration)

More info: See Sydney Ideas website 


Associate Professor Thomas Buckley, preventative cardiovascular researcher, Sydney Nursing School, University of Sydney

Professor Chris Semsarian, cardiologist, Sydney Medical School, University of Sydney, Head of Molecular Cardiology Program Centenary Institute

Professor Andrew McLachlan, Program Director NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in Medicines and Ageing, Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Sydney

Professor Joerg Eberhard, Chair of Lifespan Oral Health, Faculty of Dentistry, University of Sydney

Kobi Print

Media and PR Adviser (Health Sciences)
  • Pharmacy A15

Facts & figures

Fast facts

  • 56,000 Number of Australians who suffer a heart attack each year.
  • 153 The number of heart attacks per day, or one every 9 minutes.
  • 9,300 Almost 9,300 Australian die of heart attack each year.
  • 1 in 4 People who die from a heart attack die within the first hour of their first symptom.

Related articles