MONDAY, Jan. 9 (HealthDay News) -- There really is such a thing
as heartbreaking grief, suggests new research that finds losing a
loved one can increase the risk of heart attack.
Within a day of a significant other's death, heart attack risk
was 21 times higher than normal, said researchers who looked at
data on nearly 2,000 heart attack patients. And within the first
week after death, the heart attack risk for the bereaved was still
six times greater than usual.
"Extreme grief can trigger heart attacks," said lead researcher Dr. Murray Mittleman, director of the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Research Unit at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
"For at least a month the risk remains elevated and likely stays up even longer," he added.
The stress and anxiety of losing someone close can trigger
heart-damaging biological processes, Mittleman explained.
"All of this can cause a physiologic response with an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and also can cause changes that makes blood a little bit more sticky," he said. "This can increase the risk of having a heart attack."
After a death, it is important for immediate family members and
friends to be aware of this connection and watch for signs of
distress, Mittleman suggested.
"When an individual is grief-stricken, they often ignore their own needs and may not be as compliant with medication, may not take care of themselves as well," he said.
If the bereaved individual develops unusual physical symptoms,
"don't assume it's just stress and anxiety; it may be a heart
attack and should be taken very seriously," Mittleman warned. These
symptoms include chest or stomach pain, shortness of breath,
nausea, lightheadedness or a sudden, cold sweat.
The report was published in the Jan. 9 online edition of
Mittleman's team collected data on heart attack survivors who
took part in a multi-center study between 1989 and 1994.
Shortly after having a heart attack, the patients were asked
about the circumstances of their heart attack and if they had lost
a loved one in the past year.
Based on the patients' responses, the investigators found the
risk for having a heart attack rose to 21 times higher than normal
within a day after the death, fell to six times higher than normal
through the first week and continued dropping over the first
The researchers said the absolute risk of having a heart attack
during the first week after a loved one's death ranged from 1 in
320 for those already at high risk for a heart attack to 1 in
almost 1,400 for those whose risk was low.
Neither age nor gender affected the risk, Mittleman noted.
Earlier research found that grieving widows and widowers have a
higher risk of dying in the months after a spouse's death, with
heart disease and stroke accounting for as many as 53 percent of
those deaths among the bereaved.
Commenting on the report, Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a professor of
cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, said other
studies have shown that acute bereavement is linked with a
heightened incidence of cardiovascular events.
"The mechanisms accounting for this increased cardiovascular risk have not been fully determined and are likely multifactorial," he said.
"Recent studies suggest that a surge in inflammatory and prothrombotic [clotting] factors following the death of a loved one may help explain the elevated cardiovascular risk present at this time of acute psychological stress," Fonarow said.
For more information on heart attacks, visit the
American Heart Association.
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