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New roller coasters may imperil hearts

A new generation of faster, twistier roller coasters can make the heart race up to 155 beats per minute and spur dangerous changes to heart rhythm in some people, according to a study released Tuesday.

One volunteer in the study, which took place on the Holiday Park Expedition GeForce roller coaster in Germany, experienced an episode of atrial fibrillation, and another experienced ventricular tachycardia – both problematic changes in heart rhythm. The two volunteers recovered on their own after a few seconds.

The changes could have been fatal if the participants had underlying cardiac conditions or if the irregularities had lasted longer, said study coauthor Dariusch Haghi, a cardiologist at University Hospital of Mannheim in Germany. “I don’t think healthy people should be worried at all,” said Haghi, whose study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “If people have a serious heart condition or if they are unaware of their heart condition, this might be worrisome.”

Jon Resar, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who was not involved in the study, likened the cardiovascular changes to effects seen in “very vigorous exercise.” “This is quite a stressor on the cardiovascular system,” he said. “It’s real brief in duration, but it could certainly precipitate … heart pain, in individuals with blockages in coronary arteries.”

David Mandt, a spokesman for the Alexandria, Va.-based International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, said the study reinforced the warnings that amusement parks had posted by most roller coasters for years: that people with heart conditions and high blood pressure should not ride.

Roller coasters rarely spur fatal cardiac events. Researchers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logged seven such deaths between 1994 and 2004.

The roller coaster in Haghi’s study reached a top speed of about 75 mph and accelerated to 4.5 times gravity during a four-second free fall. Versions of this roller coaster have been operating in the U.S. as the Ride of Steel or Superman – Ride of Steel, according to the online Roller Coaster Database.


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