Bereavement has long been known as a risk factor for death and this study increases our understanding of its effects on cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks and strokes.
The study showed the likelihood of a heart attack or stroke doubled in the crucial 30 day period after a partner’s death for those experiencing loss of a loved one.
Grief leads to extra physical stress and also may make people forget or lose interest in taking their medication, according to experts.
Dr Sunil Shah, senior lecturer in public health at St George’s University of London, a co-author of the report, said: “We often use the term a ‘broken heart’ to signify the pain of losing a loved one and our study shows that bereavement can have a direct effect on the health of the heart.”
The authors compared the rate of heart attack or stroke in older patients, aged 60 and over, whose partner died to that of individuals whose partners were still alive during the same period.
They found that 16 per thousand of patients studied experienced heart attacks or strokes within 30 days of their partner’s death compared with 8 per thousand of the normal population.
However, this increased risk in bereaved men and women started to reduce after 30 days.
Dr Sunil Shah, Senior Lecturer in Public Health at St George’s University of London, a co-author of the report, said: “:There is evidence, from other studies, that bereavement and grief lead to a range of adverse responses including changes in blood clotting, blood pressure, stress hormone levels and heart rate control.
“All these will contribute to an increased risk of events such as heart attacks and stroke after loss of a partner.
“In addition, we have found, in another study, that in the first few months after bereavement, individuals may not consistently take their regular preventive medication, such as cholesterol lowering drugs or aspirin.
“Sudden short-term interruption of such regular medication may also contribute to the increased risk of cardiovascular events.
“We think it is important that doctors, friends and family are aware of this increase risk of heart attacks and strokes so they can ensure care and support is as good as possible at a time of increased vulnerability before and after loss of a loved one.”
Dr Iain Carey, Senior Research Fellow at St George’s University of London, said: “We have seen a marked increase in heart attack or stroke risk in the month after a person’s partner dies which seems likely to be the result of adverse physiological responses associated with acute grief.
“A better understanding of psychological and social factors associated with acute cardiovascular events may provide opportunities for prevention and improved clinical care.”
Notes to Editors
The study was funded by The Dunhill Medical Trust. The full article is published in Jama Internal Medicine at link