Vital exhaustion caused by prolonged and profound stress at work or home - also known as burnout syndrome - could be associated with a potentially deadly heart rhythm disturbance. 

Atrial fibrillation is the most common form of heart arrhythmia. It is estimated that 17 million people in Europe and 10 million people in the US will have this condition by next year, increasing their risk for heart attack, stroke, and death. 

Psychological distress has been suggested as a risk factor for atrial fibrillation, but previous studies showed mixed results. In addition, until now, the specific association between vital exhaustion and atrial fibrillation had not been evaluated.

Researchers from the study, which was published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, a journal of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC), surveyed more than 11,000 individuals for the presence of vital exhaustion, anger, antidepressant use, and poor social support. They then followed them over a period of nearly 25 years for the development of atrial fibrillation.

Unchecked exhaustion can lead to harm

Participants with the highest levels of vital exhaustion were at a 20% higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation over the course of follow-up compared to those with little to no evidence of vital exhaustion.

Study author Dr Parveen K Garg, University of Southern California,  Los Angeles, said: “Vital exhausation differs from depression, which is characterised 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.

"Vital exhaustion is associated with increased inflammation and heightened activation of the body’s physiologic stress response. 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."

The findings for anger and social support are consistent with prior research but two previous studies did find a significant association between antidepressant use and an increased risk of atrial fibrillation.

He added: “It is already known that exhaustion increases one’s risk for cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke. 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.”