A Scientific American interview with Martin A. Samuels, chairman of the neurology department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, examined the phenomenon of being “scared to death.” (Via post in Boing Boing.) It was prompted by a criminal case going on now:
A Charlotte, N.C., man was charged with first-degree murder of a 79-year-old woman whom police said he scared to death. In an attempt to elude cops after a botched bank robbery, the Associated Press reports that 20-year-old Larry Whitfield broke into and hid out in the home of Mary Parnell. Police say he didn’t touch Parnell but that she died after suffering a heart attack that was triggered by terror.
Samuels explains that the “fight or flight response” can cause the heart to “go into abnormal rhythms that are not compatible with life.” When asked if “other emotional states besides fear could lead to these fatal heart rhythm,” he responds:
Any strong positive or negative emotions such as happiness or sadness. There are people who have died in intercourse or in religious passion. There was a case of a golfer who hit a hole in one, turned to his partner and said, “I can die now”—and then he dropped dead. A study in Germany found an increase of sudden cardiac deaths on the days that the German soccer team was playing in the World Cup. For about seven days after the 9/11 terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon there was an increase of sudden cardiac death among New Yorkers.