Story at a glance

  • A 25-year study found a link between what it called “vital exhaustion” — a medical term for the irritability, deep fatigue and demoralization of burnout — and the development of the heart condition known as atrial fibrillation.
  • Atrial fibrillation involves an irregular heartbeat and kills some 130,000 Americans annually and is the leading cause of stroke in the U.S. and Europe.
  • The findings can’t prove burnout causes the heart condition, but highlights the connection between mental stress and physical health.

The mental and physical exhaustion of burnout may put you at higher risk of a potentially deadly heart condition, according to new research.

The condition, called atrial fibrillation, involves a quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and is the world’s most common heart rhythm disorder — affecting more than 33 million people globally. A fluttering heartbeat might sound innocuous but atrial fibrillation can cause blood clots, stroke and heart failure and is responsible for roughly 130,000 deaths and 750,000 hospitalizations in the United States each year. In the U.S. and Europe, atrial fibrillation is the number one cause of stroke.

For some, the condition causes chest pain, fatigue or shortness of breath that might clue them in, but many may have no symptoms at all. 

The new research links the development of atrial fibrillation to chronic stress and the depleted state typical of burnout, CNN reports.

"We've known that stress can cause other types of heart disease, but this is the first study to really link exhaustion to potentially increasing your risk for a cardiac arrhythmia," study author Parveen Garg told CNN. 

"We know a few prime risk factors that are very important, such as obesity, high blood pressure and smoking, but it doesn't explain everything about why we get this condition," Garg said. "We're drawing a link between exhaustion and atrial fibrillation which really hasn't been described before."

Burnout is hard to quantify, but 80 percent of Americans say they experience stress at work, which can eventually lead to burnout, and half say they could use help managing that stress.

"Burnout can be any sort of stressor -- it doesn't necessarily have to be work," Garg said. "It can be personal stress, home or family tension. It's anyone who is chronically stressed and who suffers from chronic exhaustion."

Other research has linked anger, anxiety, depression and exhaustion to heart failure and heart disease, but the data on atrial fibrillation in particular has been mixed.

The new study followed nearly 12,000 men and women who did not have atrial fibrillation over the course of 25 years. The researchers kept an eye out for which people developed atrial fibrillation and used quizzes to track the participants’ levels of anger, exhaustion, social support and use of antidepressants over the course of the study.

When the team analyzed the results, anger, social support and antidepressant use didn’t predict the development of atrial fibrillation. The strongest predictor was “vital exhaustion,” a medical term for the irritability, deep fatigue and demoralization of burnout. 

"Vital exhaustion is associated with increased inflammation and increased activation of the body's physiologic stress response," Garg said. "When these two things are chronically activated that can have serious and damaging effects on the heart tissue, which could then eventually lead to the development of this arrhythmia."

Experts not involved in the study say the results are intriguing but preliminary and unproven. However, they say, the results show the potential connection between burnout and atrial fibrillation merits further investigation.

Garg assents to the limitations of the research and hopes to probe the question of whether reducing levels of exhaustion could help reduce one’s risk of developing atrial fibrillation in future studies. 

"But I think the main take-home message," he said, "is that high levels of stress, high levels of exhaustion can have an impact on your heart as well as your mind."

Published on Jan 16, 2020