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"Poker Face" Linked to Serious Heart, Lung Diseases

Update Date: Jul 15, 2014 04:12 PM EDT

Can't get rid of your poker face? New research you might have serious heart and lung conditions.

Researchers found that the inability to show certain facial expressions in response to emotional cues like surprise is the strongest indicator of heart and lung disease.

Researchers said the latest findings could help emergency care doctors prioritize patients for treatment, and identify patients who really need costly and invasive tests.

The latest study involved 50 adults with shortness of breath (dyspnoea) and chest pain. All participants were being cared for in an emergency department. Participants were asked to look at a laptop and view three visual cues that were designed to trigger an emotional response.

The laptop webcam then recorded their facial expressions in response to each of the three cues, which consisted of a humorous cartoon, a close up of a surprised face and a photograph of an individual in tears.

Participants were monitored for 14 days. They were also evaluated for serious heart or lung disease, such as acute coronary syndrome (heart attack, unstable angina), blood clots in the lung (pulmonary embolism), pneumonia, problems in the major (aortic) artery or gut and new cancers.

After analyzing the webcam recordings, researchers found that patients with chest pain and shortness of breath who had a potentially serious heart or lung condition had a drastically narrower range of facial expression in response to visual cues than those who did not have heart or lung conditions.

Furthermore, the greatest difference between the two groups was the ability to show surprise.

"We believe that due to the gravity of their illness, [these] patients may not have been able to process and respond to an emotional stimulus in the way that would be expected of most people under normal conditions," researchers wrote in the study.

"The ultimate goal of this work is to provide clinicians with a new physical finding that can be associated with a healthy state to avoid unnecessary [computed tomography] scanning," that could be used as a supplementary measure during physical examination, researchers concluded.

The findings were published online in Emergency Medicine Journal.

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