What’s the historically important connection between chair upholstery and heart disease?


As Discovermagazine.com informs us, it’s because of chair upholstery that the connection between “Type A” personality and heart disease was discovered.

If you’re not familiar with Type A, here’s an explanation:

A person with type A behavior, as first described by San Francisco cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, is immensely competitive, overachieving, time-pressured, impatient, insecure, and hostile, and suffers from low self-esteem. Despite some initial robust skepticism from more mainstream doctors, who thought about heart disease in the context of lipids and blood vessels and heart valves, the finding has been solidly validated, and type A behavior is now recognized to carry at least as much cardiac risk as does smoking or high cholesterol levels. And, a sure sign of a healthy, important finding in science, research on type A-ness continues unabated.

But what’s the connection to chair upholstery? Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky explains:

Friedman told me about the discovery of the type A link. It was the mid-1950s, and he and Rosenman were having an unexpected problem with their successful cardiology practice: they were spending a fortune reupholstering the chairs in their waiting rooms. There seemed to be no end of chairs that had to be fixed. One day a new upholsterer came in to see to the problem, took one look at the chairs, and discovered the type A-cardiovascular disease link. He announced it semicryptically, with the words: What the hell is wrong with your patients? People don’t wear out chairs this way. The front-most few inches of the seat cushions and the armrests–and only the front-most few inches– were torn to shreds, as if some very short beavers had spent the night in the office craning their necks to savage the chairs. Obviously these particular waiting rooms were far from peaceful places. The patients habitually sat on the edges of their seats while fidgeting and clawing away.

I initially heard this story a while back on a fantastic episode of Radiolab. You can listen to Sapolsky tell the story himself here

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