Researchers found a link between burnout and an irregular heartbeat after studying more than 11,000 people over the course of two decades.

By Faith Brar
January 14, 2020
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Burnout may not have a clear-cut definition, but there's no doubt it should be taken seriously. This type of chronic, unchecked stress can have a huge impact on your physical and mental health. But burnout could potentially affect your heart health, too, according to new research.

The study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, suggests that long-term "vital exhaustion" (read: burnout) may put you at a higher risk for developing a potentially fatal heart flutter, also known as atrial fibrillation or AFib.

"Vital exhaustion, commonly referred to as burnout syndrome, is typically caused by prolonged and profound stress at work or home," study author Parveen Garg, M.D. of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said in a press release. "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." (FYI: Burnout has also been recognized as a legit medical condition by the World Health Organization.)

The Study

The study reviewed data from more than 11,000 people who participated in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study, a large-scale study on cardiovascular disease. At the start of the study (way back in the early '90s), participants were asked to self-report their use (or lack thereof) of antidepressants, as well as their levels of "vital exhaustion" (aka burnout), anger, and social support via questionnaire. Researchers also measured participants' heart rates, which, at the time, showed no signs of irregularity. (Related: What You Should Know About Your Resting Heart Rate)

Researchers then followed these participants over the course of two decades, evaluating them on five different occasions on the same measures of vital exhaustion, anger, social support, and antidepressant use, according to the study. They also looked at data from participants' medical records over that period of time, including electrocardiograms (which measure heart rate), hospital discharge documents, and death certificates.

In the end, researchers found that those who scored the highest on vital exhaustion were 20 percent more likely to develop AFib compared to those who scored lower on measures of vital exhaustion (there were no significant associations between AFib and the other psychological health measures).

How Risky Is AFib, Exactly?

ICYDK, AFib can increase your risk of strokes, heart failure, and other heart-related complications, according to the Mayo Clinic. The condition affects somewhere between 2.7 and 6.1 million people in the U.S., contributing to an estimated 130,000 deaths every year, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (Related: Bob Harper Was Dead for Nine Whole Minutes After Suffering a Heart Attack)

While the link between long-term stress and heart health complications is pretty well-established, this study is the first of its kind to look at the association between burnout, specifically, and increased risk for heart-related health issues, said Dr. Garg in a statement, per INSIDER. "We found that people who reported the most exhaustion had a 20 percent risk of developing atrial fibrillation, a risk that carried over for decades," explained Dr. Garg (Did you know that exercising too much could be toxic to your heart?)

The study's findings are no doubt interesting, but it's worth pointing out that the research had a few limitations. For one, researchers only used one measure to assess participants' levels of vital exhaustion, anger, social support, and antidepressant use, and their analysis didn't account for fluctuations in these factors over time, according to the study. Plus, since participants self-reported these measures, it's possible their responses weren't entirely accurate.

The Bottom Line

That said, more research needs to be done on the connection between sustained high levels of stress and heart health complications, said Dr. Garg in a press release. For now, he highlighted two mechanisms that could be at play here: "Vital exhaustion is associated with increased inflammation and heightened activation of the body's physiologic stress response," he explained. "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." (Related: Bob Harper Reminds Us That Heart Attacks Can Happen to Anyone)

Dr. Garg also noted that more research on this connection may help to better inform doctors who are tasked with treating people who suffer from burnout. "It is already known that exhaustion increases one's risk for cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke," he said in a press release. "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."

Feeling like you may be dealing with (or headed toward) burnout? Here are eight tips that can help put you back on course.

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