For a minority of people stopped by the police, getting arrested is not the worst thing that happens.
Spanish doctors reported Tuesday that a small percentage of men may be susceptible to sudden cardiac death after being arrested.
The research was presented by Dr Manuel Selles of the Hospital Gregoria Maranon, Madrid, Spain, at a meeting of the European Society of Cardiology in Munich.
"The numbers are enough to show us that something unusual is going on," Selles said. He and colleagues searched Spanish newspapers in the last decade for all reports of unexplained deaths in people detained by police for less than 24 hours. They found 60 unexplained deaths in healthy young people who had no history of previous heart problems.
Phenomenon mostly in men
Aside from one case in a women, all cases were in men; their mean age was 33. Of those, a dozen had used drugs, four had been treated for psychiatric illnesses, and another four received medical treatment before they died. Nearly 20 of the men died where they were arrested, after being handcuffed.
None of the cases included any documented police brutality.
Autopsies were performed in all the cases, which were listed officially as unexplained deaths.
Selles hypothesized that under the stress of being arrested, the men's blood pressure and heart rates surged. They may also have released a sudden surge of chemicals including adrenaline, which causes the arteries to constrict. If the arteries become completely blocked, that can lead to a fatal heart attack.
"It's reasonable to think that under a stressful situation, this could happen," said Dr Jonathan Halperin, a professor of medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and spokesman for the American Heart Association. He was not connected to the research.
"We all know stress is bad for you, and this is stress in the extreme," he said.
Other conditions with the same effect
There are other conditions in which otherwise healthy people can suddenly have a heart attack, including an illness called Tako-Tsubo stress cardiomyopathy. That mainly affects women who are experiencing a major trauma, like the death of a loved one.
Whenever natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis strike, experts said there also tend to be higher rates of heart attacks in people overcome by the stress of the situation.
Experts said that while cases of the apparent new syndrome identified in Spain have not yet been seen elsewhere, they would be hard to detect unless authorities specifically looked for them.
They were also unsure whether innocent or guilty people might feel more stress.
"I imagine people who are detained legitimately have higher stress levels than those who are innocent," said Dr Bradley Knight, a cardiologist at the University of Chicago and spokesman for the American College of Cardiology.
"But I suppose that depends on the level of trust you have for the authorities." – (Maria Cheng/Sapa)
Clue to stress heart attack