Losing A Loved Can Increase Heart Attack Risk
January 10, 2012

Losing A Loved Can Increase Heart Attack Risk

According to a new study, the newly bereaved are at a greatly increased risk of having a heart attack after the death of a loved one.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School´s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center say that a “perfect storm” of stress, lack of sleep and forgetting to take regular medications puts mourners at a severely high risk a heart attack in the days following a loved one´s death.

In the study of nearly 2,000 people, published in the journal Circulation, the researchers found that heart attack risk is 21 times higher within the first day and also six times higher than normal within the first week.

Experts say intense grief puts extra strain on the heart. The psychological stress associated with loss can raise heart rate, blood pressure and blood clotting, which, in turn, can increase the chance of heart attack. Loss of a loved one can also affect a griever´s sleep and appetite. Add self-neglect to the mix, and the result can be severe.

“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,” said Dr. Murray Mittleman, of Harvard Medical School's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and lead author of the study. “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.”

Among the 1,985 heart attack survivors studied, researchers determined 270 (13.6 percent) experienced the loss of a loved one within six months, including 19 losing a loved one within one day of their heart attack.

The researchers also found that the increased risk of heart attack within the first week after the loss of a loved one ranges from one per 320 people with a high heart attacks risk to one per 1,394 people with a low heart attack risk. This study is the first to focus on heart attack risk during the first few days and weeks after a loved one´s death.

To determine their findings, the research team reviewed charts and interviewed 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 also the importance of their relationship.

“We´re already aware that, under exceptional circumstances, emotional stress can trigger a heart attack,” Professor Peter Weissberg of the British Heart Foundation, told BBC News. “But we shouldn´t lose sight of the fact that heart attacks triggered by stress normally only happen in people with underlying heart disease. It´s very important that if you´re taking medication because you have, or are at high risk of, heart disease, don´t neglect taking it following a significant bereavement.”

Elizabeth Mostofsky, coauthor of the research, agreed that grieving people sometimes neglect taking their regular medications, possibly leading to adverse heart events. “Friends and family of bereaved people should provide close support to help prevent such incidents, especially near the beginning of the grieving process,” she added.

“Similarly, medical professionals should be aware that the bereaved are at much higher risk for heart attacks than usual,” Mostofsky noted.

“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,” Mittleman said.

Heart attack signs include chest discomfort, upper body or stomach pain, shortness of breath, breaking into a cold sweat, nausea or light-headedness.

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 proper psychological interventions for those grieving is also important. “We do think it´s plausible that social support during that increased time of vulnerability would help mitigate the risk of heart attack,” added Mostofsky.

Future studies are needed to make more specific recommendations based on the study, Mittleman cautioned.


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