LOS ANGELES — Problems at home, stress on the job, or an especially troubling romantic relationship are just a few examples of trying life situations that can lead to burnout. Being burnt out is often characterized by feeling especially tired all the time, irritable, and even disheartened with one’s life. Now, a new study finds that burnout may also lead to a serious heart condition.
Researchers from the University of Southern California say that burnout syndrome is associated with atrial fibrillation, a potentially fatal disturbance in one’s heart rhythm.
“Vital exhaustion, commonly referred to as burnout syndrome, is typically caused by prolonged and profound stress at work or home,” says study author Dr. Parveen K. Garg in a statement. “It differs from depression, which is characterized by low mood, guilt, and poor self-esteem. The results of our study further establish the harm that can be caused in people who suffer from exhaustion that goes unchecked.”
Atrial fibrillation is the most common form of heart arrhythmia, and raises one’s risk of heart attack and stroke. However, modern medical science still isn’t completely sure of what actually causes the condition. Psychological stress has long been considered a factor in it’s development, but prior research on the matter has yielded inconclusive results. Furthermore, up until now, the possible connection between overall exhaustion and fatigue and atrial fibrillation had never been extensively investigated.
Researchers surveyed over 11,000 people on their exhaustion and anger levels, use of antidepressants, and level of social support. Then, all participants were tracked for 25 years, in order to observe who ended up developing atrial fibrillation.
Overall, the research team found that individuals who showed the highest levels of vital exhaustion, or excessive fatigue, demoralization, and irritability, were 20% more likely to develop atrial fibrillation over the course of the 25-year follow-up period. That’s in comparison to participants who showed little to no signs of burnout at the beginning of the research.
The study’s authors admit that further research is needed to better understand the exact relationship at play here, but are confident there is some type of connection between burnout level and likelihood of developing an irregular heartbeat.
“Vital exhaustion is associated with increased inflammation and heightened activation of the body’s physiologic stress response,” Dr. Garg says. “When these two things are chronically triggered that can have serious and damaging effects on the heart tissue, which could then eventually lead to the development of this arrhythmia.”
There were no connections identified regarding anger, antidepressant use, or poor social support and subsequent development of an irregular heartbeat.
“The findings for anger and social support are consistent with prior research but two previous studies did find a significant association between antidepressant use and an increased risk of atrial fibrillation. Clearly, more work still needs to be done,” Dr. Garg adds.
“It is already known that exhaustion increases one’s risk for cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke. We now report that it may also increase one’s risk for developing atrial fibrillation, a potentially serious cardiac arrhythmia. The importance of avoiding exhaustion through careful attention to – and management of – personal stress levels as a way to help preserve overall cardiovascular health cannot be overstated,” he concludes.
The study is published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.