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ALEX COHEN, host:

The highs and lows of the housing market often seems like a real roller coaster. In either ride, part of the thrill comes from that feeling of being scared to death. A new study finds that expression, scared to death, may be more accurate than you think, at least when it comes to amusement park roller coasters. Over a 10 year period, there were 29 roller coaster fatalities reported, and seven of them were attributed to some sort of heart failure.

I spoke earlier with our regular medical contributor, Dr. Sydney Spiesel. He's a professor with Yale Medical School and writes for the online magazine Slate. Dr. Spiesel told me about a recent study done by a team of medical researchers who took a look at the heart rates of people riding a roller coaster in Germany.

Dr. SYDNEY SPIESEL (Yale Medical School): They found that people's heart rates, not surprisingly, were affected by flying around on a roller coaster. This was a fairly modern roller coaster in which the ride was just two minutes long and it began with a slow rise to 200 feet followed by four seconds of a free fall drop and then swooshing around back and forth, up and down a number of times. This roller coaster actually ran at a maximum speed of 75 miles an hour, which seems fast, but I've just heard that it's not fast at all compared to the really high-speed ones.

COHEN: Well, what's kind of interesting about this, too, as I understand that it wasn't so much necessarily the speed that made people's hearts race. It was the anticipation, that people's heart rates increased most on the way up these big hills. So it seems like the most important factor here is the mental as opposed to the physical stress.

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, it's mixed, because it is absolutely true that the greatest change in heart rate, the greatest increase in heart rate happened during that slow rise for the first 200 feet. But in fact, the peak heart rates actually happened further on in the ride when the riders were being dropped and lifted and swirled around from one side to another.

COHEN: And what's the potential danger here? I mean, your heart fluttering a bit doesn't seem like too big of a problem, but are there actual potential dangers or cardiac risks involved?

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, the answer is it must - considering the total number of people who ride, we don't have any idea what that number is, but a lot of people ride on those things all around the world, and the total risk is low.

But in this one study - there's one study that was done just in the United States - and they looked at a 10-year period in which they collected every fatality that could ever be related to roller coaster rides. And a lot of them actually were employees who were hit by the cars or things like that, but 29 or them were riders. And of those 29, there were seven deaths that were attributed to heart attacks - or some kind of heart problem, anyway.

COHEN: When you go to the amusement park and you go on these rides, usually, you know, there are those signs that say pregnant women shouldn't ride, you have to be over a certain height, but what should the rest of us keep in mind just in terms of heart conditions and whether or not it's safe to go on these rides?

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, I guess for most of us, I think it probably is safe. But I think if people have known heart problems, it might be pretty reasonable to talk to their cardiologist about whether this is a good idea or not.

COHEN: I got to ask, Syd, do you ride these things at all?

Dr. SPIESEL: Not for many years, but it's not because of anxiety about my health, because I will do anything to risk my health in the interest of something interesting or fun; it's just plain anxiety.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COHEN: Anxiety and opinion from Dr. Sydney Spiesel of Yale and Slate.com. Thanks so much, Syd.

Dr. SPIESEL: Thank you.

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