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Sudden Deaths Linked to Arrests

September 2, 2008

Researchers in Spain have reported a possible link between the deaths of young men and incarceration.

On Tuesday, Manuel Martinez Selles of Madrid’s Hospital Gregorio Maranon announced his findings at the annual meeting of the European Society of Cardiology.

Through his investigation of 60 unexplained deaths of persons who had been arrested in Spain, Selles found that death occurred at the point of arrest in one third of the cases.

The remaining two thirds of deaths occurred within 24 hours of incarceration, Selles said.

“Something unusual is going on,” Selles said.

All but one of the casualties were male and their average age was 33 years. None of those involved had any previous history of cardiovascular disease.

Selles said he was still unsure exactly what caused the deaths to occur, but theorizes that young men may experience surges in blood levels of chemicals known as catecholamines during periods of severe stress.

He likened these events to the unexplainable sudden deaths of some wild animals upon their capture.

“Probably when these young males are captured it is very stressful and their level of catecholamines goes very high and that can finish their life by ventricular fibrillation (cardiac arrest).”

Selles compiled his study — the first of its kind in any country — by scouring Spanish newspapers for cases of unexplained death after police detention over the past 10 years.

Selles only investigated cases of sudden death with no clear causes. Autopsy reports were verified to rule out other causes, including past history of medical conditions.

Jonathan Halperin of the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, who was not involved in the research, said the concept of a heart stress syndrome triggered by a flood of adrenaline or other chemicals was “a reasonable hypothesis”.

“We all know stress is bad for you and this may be stress in the extreme,” he said.

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