Heart Attack: Can the Market Cause One?

Last Updated Apr 27, 2010 3:29 PM EDT

Everyone knows that heart attacks can cause stock sell-offs. (Remember Apple's 5 percent drop after a CNN affiliate erroneously reported a Steve Jobs' cardiac?) Now there's preliminary evidence that the reverse might also be true: Stock sell-offs may trigger heart attacks.

Researchers at Duke University recently announced the results of a study that correlated the NASDAQ composite index from January 2008 through July 2009, during which time it lost as much as 50 percent of its value, with the number of heart attacks in the Duke Databank for Cardiovascular Disease. They found that the recession did in fact cause more chest compression. As the NASDAQ fell, heart attacks spiked, and vice versa. Although subsequent analysis suggests that seasonality could also have played a role (heart attacks generally rise during winter), the findings are in line with previous research conducted after other stressful events.

It reminded me of a makeshift experiment we engineered a few years ago when I was a staff writer at Men's Health magazine. During March Madness, we hooked three diehard fans to heart rate monitors as they watched their alma maters on television. Turns out the largest spikes in heart rate (from 66 to 140 beats per minute) occurred when victory seemed imminent but then was snatched away. It was the unexpected shock and impending disappointment that rocked these guys most â€" a situation not unlike what investors experienced during the recent recession. And for someone at risk of heart failure, such stress can prove fatal.

Cardiologist Arthur Agatston, M.D., author of The South Beach Diet and other bestsellers, explains that whenever you're under a great deal of physical or emotional pressure, the body is flooded by adrenaline and other stress hormones. As a result, he says the heart beats faster, blood pressure rises, and your blood even gets stickier and becomes more prone to clotting. While all this is beneficial if you're about to battle a real grizzly, if it's a bear market that's stalking you and this kind of stress becomes chronic, any heart weaknesses you already harbor will be compounded.

Of course, regular exercise, losing weight and finding outlets for stress will strengthen and protect your cardiovascular system, but you already know that. So will the rising stock market, apparently, but that can't continue forever. Instead, here are three surprising ways you can safeguard your ticker from the next market down tick:

Sleep a little more each day: A study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that for every extra hour of sleep middle-age adults get their risk of coronary artery calcification drops by 33 percent. And less plaque in blood vessels means less chance of heart attack. Getting more sleep can also do wonders for your career.

Don't drown your sorrows: Alcohol is a stimulant, so it further compounds all those stress effects mentioned earlier. Plus, it disturbs the deepest, most restorative stages of sleep. A little booze is good for your heart; a lot is not.

Lean on a friend: Numerous studies show that a strong social network benefits the heart by helping ease stress. So instead of holding your frustration or anger inside, share how you're feeling with a friend. His interest and support will always yields a high return.