Ken Lay, Stress and Heart Attacks Ken Lay, founder and former chairman of Enron, died Wednesday of a heart attack. His death comes two months after he was convicted of conspiracy and fraud. Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explains the link between mental stress and heart attacks.

Ken Lay, Stress and Heart Attacks

Ken Lay, Stress and Heart Attacks

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5538248/5538249" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Ken Lay, founder and former chairman of Enron, died Wednesday of a heart attack. His death comes two months after he was convicted of conspiracy and fraud. Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explains the link between mental stress and heart attacks.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. After Enron founder Ken Lay died of coronary artery disease yesterday, his pastor said that Lay's heart simply gave out. There's little doubt that Lay - who was awaiting sentencing for fraud and conspiracy convictions - had been under a lot of stress. But can stress cause a heart attack? That's a question for the explainer team at the on-line magazine Slate, and here with the answer is Slate's Andy Bowers.

Mr. ANDY BOWERS (Reporter, Slate Magazine): Absolutely. The release of stress hormones like adrenaline into the blood stream increases the likelihood of both heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest. Studies of heart attack patients found that fifteen to thirty percent of those admitted to a medical center had suffered from severe emotional stress. Doctors have also used data from implanted defibrillators to show that heart arrhythmias became more common nationwide in the aftermath of 9-11.

Stress can cause heart problems in several different ways. For example, an excess of stress hormones can cause a myocardial infarction, otherwise known as a heart attack. Severe stress causes the heart to beat more quickly and increases blood flow through vessels that may already be narrowed by arterial plaques. High levels of stress hormone can also knock a heartbeat out of its natural rhythm. And here's a bonus explainer: some early news reports said that Lay suffered a massive heart attack. What's that? It's just like a regular heart attack, but it affects more of the organ.

Physicians might use the phrase massive heart attack to describe a myocardial infarction that destroys a large amount of tissue - say more than twenty five percent of the total heart muscle. However, reporters sometimes confuse a heart attack with sudden cardiac arrest. A massive heart attack won't necessarily kill you. The phrase refers only to the destruction of heart muscle, not to the stoppage of the heart. But a heart attack can cause sudden cardiac arrest.

BRAND: Andy Bowers is a Slate Senior Editor, and that explainer was compiled by Daniel Engber.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.