A new study has found that people who suffer from panic attacks or panic disorder have a greater risk of subsequently developing heart disease or suffering a heart attack than the normal population, with higher rates occurring in younger people.
Researchers in the UK found that people who were younger than 50 when first diagnosed had a significantly higher risk of subsequent heart attacks (or myocardial infarctions, MI), but this was not the case in older people.
They also found there was a significantly higher incidence of subsequent coronary heart disease (CHD) in people diagnosed with panic attacks/disorder at all ages, but this was more marked in the under 50s.
However, their study also showed that the risk of dying from CHD was actually reduced amongst people of all ages who had been diagnosed with panic attacks/disorder.
"Not much is known about the relationship between panic disorder and cardiac disease. The symptoms of panic attacks can closely mimic those of a heart attack or acute cardiac disease, and it seems that there may be a complex relationship between them," Dr Kate Walters, a senior lecturer in primary care at University College London (UK), who led the research, said.
"Our findings have significant implications for clinicians. Panic attacks were associated with a significant increased risk of a subsequent diagnosis of CHD and acute MI in those aged younger than 50. This may be due to initial misdiagnosis of CHD as panic attacks, or a true underlying increased risk of CHD with panic attacks. Clinicians should be vigilant for this possibility when diagnosing and treating people presenting with symptoms of panic," she added.
For the study, the researchers looked at primary care medical records for 57,615 adults diagnosed with panic attacks/disorder and 347,039 adults who did not have the condition.
They found that those aged under 50 were more than a third (38 percent) as likely to have a heart attack and nearly half (44 percent) as likely to develop heart disease subsequently than people who had not been diagnosed with the condition. For people aged over 50 there was a slightly increased risk of heart disease (11 percent).
However, when the researchers looked at deaths amongst adults diagnosed with panic attacks/disorder, they found that for all ages the risk of death from heart disease was reduced by about a quarter (24 percent) compared with the normal population.
Walters speculated about the possible reasons for the reduced risk of death.
"This might be because the higher risk of coronary heart disease and heart attacks occurred amongst younger people who have fewer heart-related deaths generally; or it might be because people with panic disorders go to their doctors earlier and more frequently and, therefore, are more likely to have their heart disease identified and treated early, thus reducing the likelihood of dying from it," Walters said.
The study also found that women younger than 40 with panic attacks/disorder had higher increases in incidence of MI and CHD than men, but Walters said this result needed to be treated with caution as the actual number of events was very low and so it could be due to chance.
The study is published in Europe's leading cardiology journal, the European Heart Journal.