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Ken Lay, Stress and Heart Attacks


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Madeleine Brand. After Enron founder Ken Lay died of coronary artery disease yesterday, his pastor said that Lay's heart simply gave out. There's little doubt that Lay - who was awaiting sentencing for fraud and conspiracy convictions - had been under a lot of stress. But can stress cause a heart attack? That's a question for the explainer team at the on-line magazine Slate, and here with the answer is Slate's Andy Bowers.

Mr. ANDY BOWERS (Reporter, Slate Magazine): Absolutely. The release of stress hormones like adrenaline into the blood stream increases the likelihood of both heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest. Studies of heart attack patients found that fifteen to thirty percent of those admitted to a medical center had suffered from severe emotional stress. Doctors have also used data from implanted defibrillators to show that heart arrhythmias became more common nationwide in the aftermath of 9-11.

Stress can cause heart problems in several different ways. For example, an excess of stress hormones can cause a myocardial infarction, otherwise known as a heart attack. Severe stress causes the heart to beat more quickly and increases blood flow through vessels that may already be narrowed by arterial plaques. High levels of stress hormone can also knock a heartbeat out of its natural rhythm. And here's a bonus explainer: some early news reports said that Lay suffered a massive heart attack. What's that? It's just like a regular heart attack, but it affects more of the organ.

Physicians might use the phrase massive heart attack to describe a myocardial infarction that destroys a large amount of tissue - say more than twenty five percent of the total heart muscle. However, reporters sometimes confuse a heart attack with sudden cardiac arrest. A massive heart attack won't necessarily kill you. The phrase refers only to the destruction of heart muscle, not to the stoppage of the heart. But a heart attack can cause sudden cardiac arrest.

BRAND: Andy Bowers is a Slate Senior Editor, and that explainer was compiled by Daniel Engber. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andy Bowers
Andy Bowers oversees Slate's collaboration with NPR?s daytime news magazine, Day to Day. He helps produce the work of Slate's writers for radio, and can also be heard on the program.