It is indeed possible to be frightened to death, researchers said Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association.
On the day in 1994 when a major earthquake shook Los Angeles, the death rate from heart attacks shot up by 70 percent, an examination of death certificates disclosed.
However, researchers were surprised to find that in the two weeks after the quake, heart-attack deaths dropped significantly, more than compensating for the spike in deaths associated with the shock of the quake.
“That’s the most intriguing finding of the entire study,” said Dr. Robert Kloner, a professor of medicine at the University of Southern California. “The decrease in deaths over the following two weeks over-compensated for the increase on the day of the earthquake.
“This could mean that a whole population could have been preconditioned by the stress of the earthquake; in other words, the stress could have made them hardier and more resilient. Or the earthquake could have triggered people sensitive to stress and left a population that was more resilient, the so-called ‘survival of the fittest.”’
Kloner reported that there were 2,094 deaths attributed to coronary heart disease in Los Angeles County during January 1994, which was about the same as occurred in 1992 and 1993. Prior to Jan. 17, when the quake occurred, the average daily heart death rate was about 73. But on the day of the quake, 125 people died of heart attacks.
Another way of looking at the statistics is that on an average day in the Los Angeles area, 30 percent of the deaths are related to heart disease, but on the day of the quake, 40 percent of the deaths were from heart attacks.
“I lived eight miles from the quake’s epicenter, so I can vouch for people who said they truly thought they were going to die,” said Kloner. “There is no question in my mind that if this earthquake hadn’t occurred, there wouldn’t have been an increase in the number of heart-related deaths that day.
“These findings definitely indicate a need to place more emphasis on stress as a factor in the management of ischemic heart disease.”