News stories are filled with incidents of cardiac arrest after earthquakes, fires and other traumatic events. What has puzzled researchers is that sometimes the victims do not have underlying heart disease. A recent study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine (2005; [67], 359–65), suggests that emotional stress may trigger unexplained, or what is referred to as “idiopathic,” cardiac arrest in otherwise healthy people.

Researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson interviewed 25 men and women an average of 5 years after they had suffered unexplained cardiac arrest. Patients treated for heart attack or chest pain related to heart disease served as a comparison group. Twenty of the participants with sudden cardiac arrest had been through significant stress 6 months before their attacks, compared to 10 patients in the group with heart disease. Of the 25 survivors of sudden cardiac arrest, nine had experienced a severely or moderately stressful event within 24 hours before their attacks. In the comparison group, only two of the 25 patients had experienced a similarly stressful event in the same time period.

Researchers concluded that while stress clearly plays a role in otherwise unexplained cardiac arrest, more research is needed to determine exactly why this is the case.