For those who suffer from arrhythmias, scientists have found a solar flare may be the natural phenomenon that could protect against their irregular heartbeats. The new analysis, which was presented on Friday at the Heart Rhythm Society’s annual meeting in San Francisco, is only a preliminary analysis of the potentially beneficial relationship between arrhythmias and solar flares, and further research is needed to understand why there is a link in data.
"To be honest, I have no idea why," explained study author Dr. Elisa Ebrille, a cardiology research fellow in the division of cardiovascular disease with the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn., according to HealthDay.
Millions of people carry inside of them implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs) also known as pacemakers, which assist patients who are at high risk of sudden death due to irregular heartbeats known as arrhythmias. After researchers analyzed data from 2009 and 2012 on the daily ICD activity of 60,000 patients, they found when a solar storm occurred, the ICD corrective measures dropped.
"They occur at a frequency that coincides with the sun cycle, and the sun cycle is something like 11 years long," Ebrille said.
These battery-driven machines are surgically implanted and wired directly into the heart chambers, where they serve as a corrective device for whenever the heart begins to beat incorrectly. Doctors are able to track the monitor’s activity without an office visit in order to see when it is being used, how frequently, and how effectively.
An ICD uses electrical pulses or shocks to help control arrhythmias, especially those that can cause sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). SCA is a condition causing the heart to suddenly stop beating, which will completely hault the blood flow to the brain and other vital organs. Death will occur if it's not treated within minutes, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
"We don't know because until now there has been nothing in the literature that has suggested that solar flares are protective," Ebrille said. "So, we can't yet say if this is happening because the device is simply working more efficiently or because the patients are actually experiencing fewer arrhythmias."
Researched looked at the daily geomagnetic activity reported by the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center, which ranks solar activity as “quiet,” "unsettled," "active," or "storm" levels. The solar storm, also known as a solar flare, is a violent explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. The energy it produces is equivalent to tens of millions of hydrogen bombs going off at once.
"But the thing is, cardio devices [ICDs] are essentially electronic devices," Ebrille noted. "And they can certainly be influenced by electrical activity in the environment, including abnormal electrical signals. And a major source of that comes from high-level solar radiation. Or flares," she continued.
"And what this means," Ebrille said, "is that now, for the first time, we have a large amount of patient data to explore in a search for a relationship between solar flares and device function."
The higher the solar flare level, the less often patients needed their ICD to help their heart, which led scientists to conclude that there was a “significant” inverse relationship between the activity.
"Some of the literature has indicated that during solar flares, arrhythmias become more frequent," she noted. "But by looking at geomagnetic activity and patient response, what we found, much to our surprise, is that there was actually a dramatic decrease in device activity prompted by heart irregularities."
Previous research has led scientists to believe that solar flares actually interfere with the ICD’s effectiveness to set the heart’s rhythms back into place. This startling discovery made it seem as though these solar shocks were interrupting the device’s ability to correct and therefore led to a dangerous and life-threatening environmental phenomenon.
"The difference today is that most of our defibrillation patients are now on a monitoring system, where we can keep track of them and collect an enormous databank of information to analyze,” said Dr. Michael Gold, chief of cardiology at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “And by doing exactly that, these researchers have been able to suggest that the impact of higher magnetic radiation is actually positive, which should be somewhat reassuring to people."