When we’re frightened, the part of the nervous system is activated that makes our adrenaline surge. Our heart beats faster and our blood pressure rises in a “fight or flight” response that can only be released by screaming or running away. Cardiologist Howard Bush says, “It’s survival.”

Daniela Lamas writes in the Miami Herald that it might actually be possible to be scared to death. A genetic disorder that affects the heart’s rhythm, long QT syndrome, can cause the heart to go into spasms following physical exercise, intense emotion, or a startling noise. But in general, it’s not a single scary moment that kills people, it’s a long history of disease.

Cardiologist Robert J. Myerburg analyzed the number of cardiac deaths in Los Angeles on the day of the 1994 earthquake and found that sudden cardiac deaths increased by more than four. Despite this, the number of sudden deaths was lower than usual in the six days after the earthquake. To him this suggests that a stressful, frightening event only speeds up cardiac deaths that would have happened soon anyway. He says, ”I generally don’t believe that fear itself can cause death.”

But sociologist David Phillips thinks it can. He investigated the link between fatal heart attacks and fear, using a Chinese and Japanese superstition. The number 4 sounds like the word for ”death” in Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese, and is regarded as bad luck, so it’s often left out of phone numbers or addresses, the way the number 13 is avoided here. According to Phillips’ study, Americans of Chinese and Japanese descent have 13% more sudden cardiac deaths than usual on the fourth of the month.

Test out your capacity for being scared?tune into Screamland this weekend, where we?ll be talking about ghost hunting and, for subscribers, the wicked critters called vampires.

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