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Antagonism, Anger Management and Heart Disease

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Heart Attack related image Photos: Getty Images

I love the research that goes into writing for EmpowHER almost as much as I love the writing itself. I get to read so many interesting studies about our heart health and almost always learn some little tidbit of information that hopefully will make me (and you as well, Gentle Readers) heart healthier in the long run. But, sometimes, I come across an article that simply makes me laugh and shake my head in disbelief because someone just spent millions of dollars on a study for which the answer is so obvious!

The name of the no-brainer article that caught my eye this week was “Antagonistic People May Increase Heart Attack, Stroke Risk.” My immediate reaction to the title was - “Duh! Like someone really needed to spend millions of dollars and conduct a study to call the pot black!” Perhaps for me, this was obvious because I worked for one of those “antagonistic” people once-upon-a-lifetime-ago. (Then, I discovered life is too short to waste on such unpleasantness but that’s a whole different story in and of itself.) This person (a woman at that, I might add) would rampage about the office when vexed - yelling and screaming (and sometimes crying, complete with the Biblical weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth), kicking desks, throwing papers and files across the room, etc. etc. etc. (You get the picture, don’t you? And yes, she was one of the “bosses” at the firm so the behavior was tolerated.) Her color would begin to flush and turn to a beautiful shade of fuchsia as she became more out of control until finally the veins in her temples and neck would begin to literally bulge out. (She would have done a Marine drill sergeant proud!) Young and aggressive, she was trying to compete and “make it” in a male-dominated industry. Needless to say, her methods of handling the stress often created stress for the rest of us. (For obvious reasons, I no longer work at that firm!)

It didn’t take a rocket-scientist - or a research study - for all of us who worked with this young woman to know that in addition to being generally unpleasant to be around, her behavior was unhealthy and that one day, if the behavior continued unchecked, there would be a cost to her health. The U.S. National Institute on Aging, or NIA for short (NIA is a division of the National Institutes of Health or NIH), recently completed a study which appears to confirm what we knew all along: persons who are antagonistic, aggressive, manipulative, and overly competitive, may be at a greater risk for a heart attack or stroke. (See the report in Hypertension: Journal of the American Heart Association).

Conducted in Italy (what a sweet gig!) as a part of the SardiNIA Study of Aging, researchers administered standard personality tests to more than 5,600 individuals (mostly from villages in the Sardinia area of Italy, hence the name SardiNIA Study) which measured participant responses in six main areas: trust, straightforwardness, altruism, compliance, modesty and tender mindedness. The SardiNIA Study participants were a mix of male (42 percent) and female (58 percent) with an average participant age of 42 years (the oldest participant was 94 years and the youngest 14).

The thickness of the carotid arteries in the necks of the participants was also documented. Researchers found that the participants who topped the personality test as being an in-your-face or my-way-or-the-highway kind of gal or guy also had much thicker neck arteries than their sweeter, nicer, kinder, and (as the article called them) generally just more agreeable counterparts. Yes, you guessed it - those thick bulging veins in the neck are risk factors for both stroke and heart attack.

In addition, researchers also found that as time went by (participants were rechecked at three years), those with the nastiest dispositions continued to down the road to heart attack and stroke as their neck arteries thickened, and thickened, and thickened. These antagonistic overachievers were found to have a 40 percent increase in their risk of heart attack or stroke over the “nice” participants (you know, the participants who were kind, trusting, straightforward, etc. versus manipulative, self-centered, or arrogant). Age and sex didn’t appear to be a factor. Women with a bad case of a nasty disposition also tended to have thicker neck arteries as did younger participants who were identified as “antagonistic.”

Granted, the study took place in Italy and we already know that sometimes such things as ethnicity or race, diet, or even regions of the world, may have an impact on heart disease. But the study should give all of us something to think about. Maybe addressing cholesterol, weight, blood pressure, etc. are not enough to prevent heart disease. Just maybe we should consider treating the whole person and investing in some anger or stress management classes to give these super-charged antagonistic kings and queens of the “bad mood” a few coping tools to help them chill out a little. It’s a thought--and it certainly couldn’t hurt the work environment either!

Mary Kyle is a freelance writer, editor, and project manager. She has a Master of Arts in Legal Studies, a Bachelor of Music, and multiple professional certifications in project management. In addition to health advocacy, she is passionate about literacy and volunteers in local schools teaching writing seminars and reading.

American Heart Association (2010, August 18). Antagonistic people may increase heart attack, stroke risk. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 30, 2010, from http://sciencedaily.com¬ /releases/2010/08/100816162633.htm

Journal Reference:
1. Angelina R. Sutin, Angelo Scuteri, Edward G. Lakatta, Kirill V. Tarasov, Luigi Ferrucci, Paul T. Costa Jr, David Schlessinger, Manuela Uda, and Antonio Terracciano. Trait Antagonism and the Progression of Arterial Thickening. Women With Antagonistic Traits Have Similar Carotid Arterial Thickness as Men. Hypertension, 2010; DOI: 10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.110.155317

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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