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Former Enron Chairman's Sudden Death Could Have Been Caused By Stress

The sudden death this past week of former Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay has focused attention on the link between stress and heart disease. Kenneth Lay died Wednesday of an apparent heart attack, after being convicted in May of fraud and conspiracy.

At the height of his corporate power, Kenneth Lay looked like the picture of good health. But cardiologists in his hometown of Houston, Texas knew he suffered from coronary artery disease. An autopsy after his death confirmed he had experienced a previous heart attack.

The former chairman of the energy corporation Enron had been under a great deal of stress for years. When Enron went into bankruptcy in December 2001, thousands of the company's employees lost their jobs; stockholders lost their investments and Kenneth Lay's legal troubles mounted. He was scheduled for sentencing in October and was facing a lifetime in prison for his conviction of fraud and conspiracy.

Kenneth Lay died in the mountain resort of Aspen, Colorado.

Dr. Reynolds Delgado of the Texas Heart Institute says it is unlikely a small community hospital in a town that size would have the medical technology needed to save a heart attack victim. "The statistics are for a community hospital like that, that if you arrive there in full cardiac arrest, the chances of survival are very, very low -- less than 10 percent."

"Here's a man in his mid-60s, under a whole lot of stress for a lot of reasons, who goes from living in Houston to a high altitude. All of these things are stressors that can lead to a risk of a heart attack," added Dr. Delgado.

There is a growing belief among medical experts that extreme and prolonged emotional stress can cause changes in blood clotting and abnormal heart beats, setting up conditions for a potential heart attack. Chronic stress, such as the death of a loved one, or mounting legal and financial troubles, often leads to anxiety and depression, which can aggravate heart disease. Stress often triggers poor health habits such as overeating and smoking, which also contribute to heart disease.

Ironically, Kenneth Lay helped raise money (for charitable causes) to install portable electrocardiogram machines in ambulances and more heart monitors in hospital emergency rooms -- medical equipment that might have saved his own life.