One Foot in the Grave - and It's All Down to Anger; GOOD HEALTH

Article excerpt


CERTAINLY it's not difficult to guess Victor Meldrew's reaction on hearing last week that the British Heart Foundation is spending [pounds sterling]37,000 to prove whether anger causes heart attacks. A familiar spasm of apoplexy and a further ear-bashing for the long-suffering Margaret on just why he doesn't believe what these wretched charities are spending other people's hard-earned cash on.

But are he and all those other grumpy old codgers, shrieking harridans, aggressive road-ragers and stroppy youngsters speeding both feet into the grave with their unbridled temper tantrums?

The British Health Foundation's research team at Edinburgh University hopes to provide the definitive answer. Studies going back 40 years have suggested so, but the biggest problem in proving it has always been in defining exactly what `angry' is, when one person's rant is another's reasoned debate.

The Edinburgh team will try to overcome that by using a specially devised questionnaire to establish exact personality types, and then filter out the other possible causes, such as smoking, family history and obesity.

Many experts expect that the results will rubber-stamp what they have believed all along: that occasionally letting off steam is better for you than bottling it up, but that continuously blowing your top is not.

If your car stalls at a junction in the middle of the rush hour and you are windscreen to windscreen with a driver honking and mouthing insults, don't get mad back: just think about what is happening to him.

His mind interprets the scene as a personal affront. His brain fires up the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn activates a range of hormones, including adrenaline. His blood pressure rises as his heart rate accelerates to pump the blood more forcefully through the body.

To provide extra energy, free fatty acids held in the muscles are released, some to be converted to cholesterol by the liver. Then, as the anger subsides, the unused cholesterol is left redundant in the bloodstream.

That is harmless in the short term, but if the man lives his life in a perpetual red-mist, exploding at every minor irritation, theoretically his arteries will slowly clog up, with the danger of chunks of deposit breaking away to block the supply to the heart. The end result? A cardiac arrest.

`It's a difficult thing to establish but it is likely that the road-rager of today is the heart attack victim of tomorrow,' says Dr Laurence Warwick-Evans, lecturer in psychophysiology at Southampton University. `What is absolutely clear is that if you are a patient already suffering severe narrowing of the arteries, then getting very angry can bring about firstly angina or pain, and secondly the death of cells in the heart.

`Anger in cardiac patients can precipitate death - it's quite straightforward.'

People with existing high blood pressure who score highly on anger measurement scales have a mortality rate six times greater than that of more placid patients. …