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Fact/Fiction: Does sarcasm put you at greater risk of a heart attack?

Old news, truthfully retold. This week we look into whether sarcastic comments can really affect your health. Yeah, right

How it was told

Oscar Wilde may have called it the “lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence”.

But does sarcasm have as much of an impact on other areas of the body than just the brain?

Reports warned last week warned that indulging in cutting comments could lead to more strain on the heart and put you at greater risk of a heart attack. Well, that’s just brilliant!

The Sun covered the story, which is based on a study from the University of Tennessee and published in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing. The tabloid even risked their ticker to indulge in some sarcasm of their own with: “FABULOUS NEWS: Being sarcastic puts you at greater risk of a heart attack, docs warn”.

The Daily Mirror also provided coverage, opting for the headline: “Sarcastic, cynical and irritable people more at risk of dying from heart attack”.

As for The Daily Telegraph, they took a slightly different approach, going for the headline: “Irritable heart attack victims more likely to die from second attack, study finds”.

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On Yahoo! they kept it simple with: “Sarcasm is ‘bad for your health’” while the story captured attention overseas too. The New Zealand Herald reported: “Scientists reveal people with ‘hostile traits’ more likely to die from heart attack”.

Let’s face it, this is not great news for anyone who bases their sense of humour and personality around sarcastic comments. But is it news that is true?

Facts. Checked

Yes and no. The range of how these stories were reported means that some news outlets were closer to the mark than others.

Researchers studied 2,000 patients – two-thirds of whom were men with an average age of 67 – for two years after suffering a heart attack to assess their chances of having another one.

The state of their personality traits were assessed using a Multiple Adjective Affective Checklist to generate a score for hostility, a personality trait that includes being sarcastic, cynical, resentful, impatient or irritable. Volunteers were asked to select from 132 positive and negative adjectives to describe how they had felt over the previous week.

The higher the score after adding and subtracting negative and positive points, the more hostility – with 57 per cent of patients scored as hostile.

The key thing to note about this study is, as The Daily Telegraph reports, that it relates to people who have survived one heart attack. Researchers were measuring how hostility is associated with the chance of them having another heart attack and whether it is more likely to kill them.

They found that hostility – which they consider sarcasm to be a sign of – can predict whether you are more likely to die but not whether you are likely to have another heart attack. As a result, The Sun’s headline is not accurate as the level of sarcasm cannot show the risk of having another heart attack, just whether you are more likely to die.

There was also a scale when it came to the reporting. Only in The Daily Telegraph’s case is it mentioned in the headline that the story relates to people who have already had a heart attack. To be fair to The Sun and The Daily Mirror, they do note this further down but if you just skimmed their headlines you would not know that this doesn’t relate to people with no prior history of heart trouble.

Regardless of the reporting on the study, it has split the experts. Sian Harding, professor of cardiac pharmacology at Imperial College London, called it “well powered” but her University of Sheffield counterpart Professor Tim Chico was less convinced.

He described some of the data in the study as “inconsistent” and warned that “heart disease is associated with many factors that are not the cause of the disease itself and this study cannot prove that hostility is a direct cause of heart disease”.

While the study can be called into question, the lesson to be learned here cannot: be more kind, it doesn’t hurt.

Image: Miles Cole

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