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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 16:36 EDT

Bereavement Can Be Bad For Your Heart

November 15, 2010

A new study shows that people who are dealing with the death of a spouse or a child can experience potentially harmful rapid increases in heart-rate and heart-rhythm. However, those changes revert back to their normal ranges within six months, researchers said on Sunday.

“While the focus at the time of bereavement is naturally directed toward the deceased person, the health and welfare of bereaved survivors should also be of concern to medical professionals, as well as family and friends,” Thomas Buckley, of the University of Sydney Nursing School in Sydney, Australia, said in a statement on the American Heart Association Web site.

Recent bereavement has previously been known to lead to heart attacks and sudden cardiac death, but research has not been able to explain the association, or why the risk appears to decrease over time.

In the new study, researchers used 24-hour heart monitors and other tests to document the increases in heart rate and heart-rhythm of 78 bereaved spouses and parents.

The study showed bereaved patients had nearly twice the number of episodes of rapid heartbeats (tachycardia) — 2.23 episodes vs. 1.23 episodes — than non-bereaved participants in the first few weeks after a death in the family. After six months, the researchers found the patients’ numbers were lower than the non-bereaved group.

Bereaved patients had an average heart-rate of 75.1 beats per minute in the first few weeks of the study, compared with 70.7 in the non-bereaved group. But the rate for the bereaved patients reverted to 70.7 within six months.

“Increased heart rate and reduced heart rate variability in the early months of bereavement are possible mechanisms of increased cardiovascular risk during this often very stressful period,” Buckley states.

The study also looked at levels of depression and anxiety, which increased greatly after a family death, but subsided only partially after six months.

The researchers used a standard measurement scale to assess the level of depression in bereaved patients, scoring an averaging of 26.3. The average score in non-bereaved participants was 6.1. The depression in bereaved individuals declined after six months, but still remained almost three times higher than the non-bereaved group.

“While our findings do not establish causality, they are consistent with evidence for psychosocial triggering of cardiovascular events,” Buckley said.

Dr Richard Stein, from the New York University School of Medicine, told BBC News that the study was an “important first step” to understanding how bereavement affects a person’s health.

Wherever possible, the bereaved should try to take moderate exercise and seek out social support, he said.

“Understanding that this is a high risk time, perhaps paying a visit to your doctor, having your blood pressure taken, looking for other illness problems, is an important thing to do,” Stein added.

Psychiatrist Dr Colin Murray Parkes, an advisor to bereavement charity CRUSE, said it is important for bereaved people not to panic if they have increased heart rate. “An increased heart rate can be a perfectly normal response to the anxiety of being bereaved,” he said.

Buckley presented his team’s findings on Sunday at the annual scientific meeting of the American Heart Association.

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