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 Circulation.

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 month.

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.

More information

For more information on heart attacks, visit the American Heart Association.