According to an article published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, heart attack risk after bereavement is much higher for several weeks after the loss. The day the loved one dies, the risk of a heart attack is a stunning twenty one times higher.
The article also warns friends and family to look for signs of heart failure in the bereaved person, ensuring they relax and maintain any medication regime they may be on.
The study was conducted with nearly 2000 adult heart attack survivors and while the risk of a heart problem declined over the first month, it still remained at six times the normal risk during the first week after a loved one died.
Murray Mittleman, M.D., Dr.P.H., a preventive cardiologist and epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and School of Public Health's epidemiology department in Boston, Mass. said:
"Caretakers, healthcare providers, and the bereaved themselves need to recognize they are in a period of heightened risk in the days and weeks after hearing of someone close dying."
This is the first study of its kind to focus on the effects of emotional events in our lives, on the heart.
Broken heart syndrome is a well documented effect, but it is not thought to produce any lasting health problems, and while it may be true that those suffering from symptoms of a broken heart generally recover with no ill effect, it certainly appears that others, while not suffering from the "pseudo" heart attack of broken heart syndrome, jump straight into full blown symptoms and physical heart issues.
Researchers say that figures show that 1 in 320 people who are at high risk for heart failure and 1 in nearly 1,400 people who are at low risk, will suffer increased heart problems due to a bereavement. Additionally, the grieving spouses are more likely to die in the future, with heart attacks and strokes accounting for 53 percent of their deaths.
As part of the multicenter study, the scientists analyzed charts and talked with patients while in the hospital, after a confirmed heart attack between 1989 and 1994. Patients answered questions about circumstances surrounding their heart attack, as well as whether they recently lost someone significant in their lives over the past year, when the death happened, and the importance of their relationship.
Researchers used a case crossover design to compare patients over the past six months. The approach eliminated the possible confounding factors of comparing different people. The authors also estimated the relative risk of a heart attack by comparing the number of patients who had someone close to them die in the week before their heart attack, to the number of deaths of significant people in their lives from one to six months before their heart attack. Psychological stress, such as that caused by intense grief, can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and blood clotting, which can raise the chances of a heart attack.
The information should be particularly useful for healthcare professionals and family members alike. The grieving process can cause a person to get less sleep, have a lower appetite and higher cortisol levels, all of which are associated with heart attacks. It's also easy for a person who is in a state of emotional shock from a sudden loss, to neglect medications, fail to eat correctly, or eat more harmful foods, drink and smoke more, and so forth.
Elizabeth Mostofsky, lead author of the research said:
"Friends and family of bereaved people should provide close support to help prevent such incidents, especially near the beginning of the grieving process."
Her colleague Dr. Mittleman said:
"During situations of extreme grief and psychological distress, you still need to take care of yourself and seek medical attention for symptoms associated with a heart attack."
Heart attack signs include chest discomfort, upper body or stomach pain, shortness of breath, breaking into a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness.
Co-authors Elizabeth Mostofsky, M.P.H, Sc.D.; Malcolm Maclure, Sc.D.; Jane Sherwood, R.N.; Geoffrey Tofler, M.D.; and James Muller, M.D. recommend a more in depth study of the issues.
The report doesn't make any mention of the age of the participants, you'd have to assume that it would be more likely to affect the elderly. They say that a divorce is worse than a death, since you have to reconcile not only the loss, but deal with a living person also, and whilst most heated divorces take place at a younger age, it would still be interesting to assess the effect of other emotional events such as this, on the bodies health, as well as the factor of age of a person.