Individuals who suffer from panic disorder, or panic attacks, may be at much higher risk of heart attack and heart disease later in life. This is according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Medicine.

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As well as inducing a feeling of intense fear, panic attacks can cause physical symptoms including chest pain, heart palpitations and breathing problems – symptoms that researchers say could represent a misdiagnosed heart condition.

Panic disorder is estimated to affect around 6 million adults in the US, with women twice as likely to develop the condition than men.

Individuals with panic disorder experience sudden feelings of intense fear and loss of control that can last for several minutes, known as panic attacks. During these attacks, people may also experience physical symptoms, including sweating, breathing problems, dizziness, racing heart, hot or cold chills, chest pain and stomach pain.

Past studies have suggested an association between panic attacks and cardiovascular events. A 2007 study by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, for example, found older women who have at least one panic attack may be at higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

But according to the researchers of this latest study – including Prof. Gary Wittert of the University of Adelaide’s School of Medicine in Australia – the link between panic disorder and heart disease “remains controversial.”

In an attempt to gain a better understanding of this association, Prof. Wittert and colleagues conducted an analysis of 12 studies involving more than 1 million men and women, of whom 58,111 had coronary heart disease.

Compared with individuals without panic disorder, those who did have the condition were found to be up to 36% higher risk of heart attack and up to 47% higher risk of heart disease.

The researchers say their study has identified a clear link between panic disorder and heart disease. However, they note that the exact mechanism underlying this association remains unclear.

“The link between panic disorders and heart disease remains controversial, partly due to overlapping symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations and shortness of breath,” explains Prof. Wittert.

“Furthermore, we can’t rule out the possibility that in some people, the symptoms of a panic disorder represent a misdiagnosed heart condition,” he adds.

While the researchers note further studies are warranted to better understand how panic attacks affect an individual’s heart, they say this current study indicates people who experience panic attacks and anxiety should keep a close eye on their heart health.

Senior study author study Prof. John Beltrame, also of the University of Adelaide’s School of Medicine, adds:

“This new data suggesting a link between panic disorders and coronary heart disease, underscores the importance of these patients seeking medical attention for their chest pain symptoms and not merely attributing them to their panic attacks.

Furthermore, if cardiac investigations reveal that the chest pain is due to an evolving heart attack, then early treatment may be lifesaving.”

Earlier this month, Medical News Today reported on study suggesting poor sleep can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, with the researchers calling for poor sleep to be added to the list of risk factors for cardiovascular disease.