Although the neural pathways underlying anxiety evolved to help us stay on alert for danger, and not die from being eaten by a lurking cave lion or stepping on a poisonous snake, most people living with higher-than-normal levels of worry would argue that it does the opposite of benefitting them. Life with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) often involves painful physical symptoms, fatigue, accompanying depression, and missing out on experiences.
But now, medical researchers in Germany have identified a tangible silver lining: Women with GAD have a greater likelihood of survival during a heart attack because they get themselves to an emergency room faster.
Their paper, published in Clinical Research in Cardiology, concedes that although anxiety is a risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease, individuals with GAD appear to be more in tune with when something is off in their body, and are thus more likely to seek the time-sensitive medical care that prevents death during an acute heart attack.
Of 619 patients interviewed within 24 hours of having an event called a ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI), 71 patients were diagnosed with GAD. The results showed that female subjects with GAD made their way to a medical center within an average of 112 minutes after noticing something was off, whereas those without GAD took 238 minutes – more than twice as long. According to a National Academy of Sciences report, every minute that elapses after a heart attack that occurs outside a hospital decreases the odds of overall surviving and surviving without permanent disability.
No significant association between anxiety and time to arrival was found in male patients.
“Our data revealed an important factor. Individuals with anxiety disorder often react more sensitively to their health needs,” said lead author Dr Karl-Heinz Ladwig in a statement.
“In this way, one illness can help protect against another serious illness.”
Speaking to the patients also revealed a greater proportion of those with GAD believed themselves to be at risk of cardiovascular disease in the six months before the event, which they associated with their decision to go to the hospital at the onset of symptoms.
Early symptoms can include severe pain radiating from the chest and an “impending sense of doom”, but many signs are more subtle, such as upper body and jaw muscle tightness, nausea and vomiting, dizziness or lightheadedness, and shortness of breath
“Doctors should always take [worried patients’] concerns very seriously,” Dr Ladwig added.
Of course, the patients with GAD did report unpleasant consequences of the condition. They had higher rates of impaired psychological well-being, stress, and fatigue. But bottom line – they made it into the 6 percent of people who live after a heart attack outside a hospital.