Hospitalizations for acute cardiovascular disease (CVD) – like a stroke or heart attack – almost doubled in the two days after the 2016 presidential election, according to a new study.
“This is a wake-up call for every health professional that we need to pay greater attention to the ways in which stress linked to political campaigns, rhetoric and election outcomes can directly harm health,” said David Williams, Professor of Public Health at Harvard Chan School and corresponding author of the study.
The findings, published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, used data collected by Kaiser Permanente Southern California, an integrated health system that provides care to 4.6 million people in the region.
They focused on diagnoses of heart attacks and stroke among adults, as well as emergency department diagnoses for chest pain and unstable angina.
In the two days right after the 2016 presidential election, there were 94 hospitalizations. But when the researchers looked eat the same days of the week during the week before the election there were only 58 total hospitalizations.
In other words, heart attacks and strokes were 1.62 times higher in the two days after the 2016 election than they were the week before. The results were similar across sex, age, and race and ethnicity groups, which the researchers say suggests that sociopolitical stress may trigger CVD events.
“In our diverse patient population that is reflective of Southern California as a whole, we saw that the risk of heart attacks increased after the 2016 election irrespective of sex, age, and racial/ethnic groups,” said the study’s lead researcher, Matthew Mefford of the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research & Evaluation.
Previous research has shown that there is an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes shortly after major events such as earthquakes, terror attacks, and even sporting events.
For example, in the two months following the 9/11 attack the number of people who ended up in a Brooklyn hospital with a heart attack jumped by 35% and in the three years after there was a 53% increased incidence of cardiovascular ailments.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a population-based event, even personal life events that increase stress have been linked to an increase risk of heart attack or stroke.
And as The American Psychological Association has recently noted, the majority of adults think the current political climate is a big source of stress. Their survey found that 77% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans said the political climate was a significant source of stress.
A study published last year in the journal PLoS ONE showed just how much of a toll that stress can take. For example, it found that one in five participants reported losing sleep, being fatigued or suffering depression because of politics. Also more than 11% said politics had hurt their physical health at least a little.
Previous research has also suggested that “election-rage” can trigger a heart attack.
The study published in 2016 reviewed more than 12,000 heart attack cases from 52 different countries and found that stress-induced anger and emotional upset were frequent factors in a first heart attack.
The researchers explained that being emotionally angry or upset can elevate blood pressure and heart rate. Those types of changes in blood flow can reduce blood supply to the heart and trigger a heart attack.
The study also found that the link between emotions and heart attack risk stayed the same regardless of other heart attack risk factors, such as being overweight, having high blood pressure or diabetes.
As for why the election causes so much stress and emotional upset, Marc Siegle, a professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, suggested in USA Today: “Part of the problem is technology. We are constantly being bombarded by cable news, internet and social media updates.”
And that’s not even including the ongoing pandemic stress, which unsurprisingly has also increased heart attacks and stroke-related deaths.
“It is important that people are aware that stress can trigger changes in their health, and that health care providers help patients cope with stress by encouraging wellness strategies such as exercise, yoga, meditation, and deep breathing,” said Mefford.
Or as Dr. Robert Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, told Heart.org: limit your exposure.
“Be careful and be deliberate,” Waldinger said. “And don’t do it late in the day as you’re wanting to settle down and sleep.”