Thousands of people could die from heart attacks if there was a widespread repeat of the Northern Rock banking crisis, a new Cambridge University study has warned.

Researchers estimate that the soaring stress levels brought on by a system-wide banking crisis could prompt a 6.4% surge in heart attacks in high-income countries such as Britain and the US.

In Britain, anywhere from 1,280 to 5,130 people 10 times the number of British troops who have been killed in Iraq could die if a significant proportion of banks failed in the manner of Northern Rock last year, the study says. Elderly customers would be at particular risk.

The report also suggests that in developing countries such as India, the death toll brought on by a banking crisis would be much worse with the number of heart attacks rising by perhaps as much as 26%.

The study, entitled Can A Bank Crisis Break Your Heart? was written in the wake of the Northern Rock bank runs and is thought to be the first evaluation of the relationship between a banking crisis and mortality. Academics from the Universitys Department of Sociology compared data from the World Health Organisation and the World Bank between 1960 and 2002.

Our findings show that financial crises arent just about money they also impact on peoples health, social epidemiologist David Stuckler, who led the research, said.

Banking crises are a significant determinant of short-term increases in heart disease and mortality rates and may have more severe consequences for developing countries. Incidents like the Northern Rock crisis not only have an impact in economic terms, but also on human lives. Any large-scale economic disturbance poses this risk.

Even temporary problems on the financial markets can lead to panic as the queues outside Northern Rock in September last year demonstrated. According to the report, the stress experienced by worried savers is similar to that experienced in earthquakes, wars, or even terrorist incidents. Other studies show that precisely this type of stress leads to significantly raised heart and blood pressure, leading to risk of an acute heart attack, particularly among the elderly.

The researchers studied male cardiovascular mortality rates per 100,000 of population from the World Health Organisations Global Mortality Database between the years 1960 and 2002. They then compared the results with the occurrence of banking crises recorded by the World Bank during the same period.

A banking crisis was defined as an episode in which a significant proportion of banks fail or their assets are exhausted. Models were used to control variables such as economic stability at the time, and the differing degrees to which individual countries monitor heart disease mortality. The findings showed that cardiac deaths surge briefly and regularly every time there is a systemic bank failure.

The report also suggests that the elderly would be at particular risk of heart failure in the event of a widespread banking meltdown. Older people are much more likely to feel threatened by risks to their accumulated savings. They are also the most sensitive to acute stress and more likely to have predisposing cardiovascular risk factors, such as hypertension.

In the case of Northern Rock, we saw evidence of spreading panic in which the trust of ordinary customers in the financial system appeared to have completely eroded, David Stuckler added.

Coupled with the coverage of the crisis, that turned what might otherwise have been a momentary blip on the financial scene into an economic policy debacle. This report shows that containing hysteria and preventing widespread panic is important not only to stop these incidents leading to a systemic bank crisis, but also to prevent potentially thousands of heart disease deaths.

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