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Why Heart Attack Risk Rises After Presidential Elections

A new study has found that people with certain genetic traits face an increased risk of heart attack following stressful events.

Stressful events such as elections, sports games, and holidays are known to cause an increase in heart attacks, and a new study finally explains why.

The study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, suggests that people with specific genetic traits — including a sensitivity to stress, anxiety, and depression — face a significantly increased risk of heart attack during these stressful times.

Specifically, individuals with high genetic stress sensitivity are more likely to experience acute coronary syndromes (ACS) — which include heart attacks and other serious conditions where the heart is suddenly deprived of blood supply — during these periods. For individuals who also have anxiety and depression, the risk is more than tripled during particularly stressful times.

“We found people who are genetically predisposed to stress tend to have a strikingly higher probability of developing a heart attack after these stressful events,” said lead study author Shady Abohashem, M.D., instructor of cardiovascular imaging in the Cardiology Department and Cardiovascular Imaging Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, in a news release. “With this study, we have identified a new factor that could be incorporated into screening to identify people who are at increased risk.”

Researchers conducted the study using health information and blood samples from 18,428 people through the Mass General Brigham Biobank, a research program of the Mass General Brigham health system. Each patient was assigned a neuroticism polygenic risk score (nPRS), which is a metric that reflects a person’s genetic predisposition to stress.

The findings show that 1,890 study participants experienced ACS over the 20-year study period. Of these participants, those with above median nPRS scores were 34% more likely to experience ACS during stressful periods — which included the 10 days after Christmas, five days after presidential elections, and five days after major sporting events (such as Super Bowls and NBA playoffs) — than during control periods.

This remained true even after accounting for traditional cardiovascular risk factors including age, sex, smoking, diabetes, and health behaviors such as alcohol consumption.

Those with higher nPRS scores were also found to be more likely to experience anxiety and depression. Having one of these mental health challenges, according to the study, accounted for nearly one-quarter of the linkage between nPRS score and stress-triggered ACS. Those with above median nPRS scores who also had anxiety or depression were 3.2 times more likely to experience ACS after stressful events than during control periods.

The researchers said these findings explain that certain individuals are more at risk during stressful periods, and this knowledge could potentially allow for prevention through screening and interventions including exercise, yoga, mindfulness or other practices that are known to reduce anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular risk.

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