The emotional distress accompanying the loss of a loved one can dramatically increase a person’s risk of suffering a heart attack.
Researchers discovered the “broken heart” experienced by significant others makes them a whopping 21 times more likely to have a heart attack during the first 24 hours.
The risk remains eight times above normal for the first week and then slowly declines to normal after a month.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center researchers interviewed approximately 2,000 patients who suffered myocardial infarctions, or heart attacks, over a five-year period. Patients were asked a series of questions about potentially triggering events, including losing someone close to them in the past year.
Although most believe grief and bereavement have detrimental health effects on survivors, the evidence until this point has been primarily anecdotal. This new investigation sought to objectively measure the influence of the bereavement process on heart health and myocardial infarction.
“Bereavement and grief are associated with increased feelings of depression, anxiety and anger, and those have been shown to be associated with increases in heart rate and blood pressure, and changes in the blood that make it more likely to clot, all of which can lead to a heart attack,” said lead author Elizabeth Mostofsky, M.P.H., ScD.
“Some people would say a ‘broken heart’ related to the grief response is what leads to these physiologic changes,” said senior author Murray Mittleman, M.D., Dr.P.H., a physician in the Cardiovascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “So that emotional sense of the broken heart may actually lead to damage leading to a heart attack and a physical broken heart of a sort.”
Mostofsky and Mittleman think that being aware of the heightened risk can go a long way toward “breaking the link between the loss of someone close and the heart attack.”
“Physicians, patients and families should to be aware of this risk and make sure that someone experiencing grief is getting their physical and medical needs met,” said Mittleman.
“And if an individual develops symptoms that we’re concerned might reflect the beginnings of heart attack, we really need to take it very seriously and make sure that that patient gets appropriate evaluation and care.”
Providing appropriate psychological interventions for someone who is grieving is also important. Mostofsky said, “We do think it’s plausible that social support during that increased time of vulnerability would help mitigate the risk of heart attack.”