Grief may trigger heart attacks

10 January 2012
The death of a loved one raises the risk of a heart attack by 21 times in the first 24 hours, according to a new study by US researchers.

The researchers also found that mourners are six times more likely than normal to have an attack in the first week of a bereavement.

The study examined 1,985 heart attack survivors. Among the participants, 270 (13.6%) experienced the loss of a significant person in the prior six months, including 19 within one day of their heart attack.

The risk of heart attack risk was highest in the first seven days following bereavement and declined steadily thereafter.

The study was carried out as part of the multi-centre Determinants of MI Onset Study.

The report states: “Psychological stress such as that caused by intense grief can increase heart rate, blood pressure and blood clotting, which can raise chances of a heart attack.

"At the beginning of the grieving process, people are more likely to experience less sleep, low appetite and higher cortisol levels, which can also increase the risks.”

The study also found that the chances of an attack also depend on someone’s general state of health. The link between grief and bereavement was strongest among people who had pre-existing risk factors for heart disease and heart attacks, such as high blood pressure or unhealthy cholesterol levels.

Eve Richardson, Chief Executive of the Dying Matters Coalition and the National Council for Palliative Care said:

"This startling research shows how devastating the impact of bereavement can be. It is often one of the most stressful times in someone’s life.

"By talking more openly about dying, death and bereavement throughout society we can make it easier to provide support to people who have lost someone close to them and can help ensure their own health does suffer.

"With someone dying every minute, millions of people each year are newly bereaved, which is why we must prioritise care and support for people affected by the death of someone they were close to."

Lead investigator Dr Murray Mittleman, of Harvard Medical School's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said: "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.

"Caretakers, healthcare providers and the bereaved themselves need to recognise they are in a period of heightened risk in the days and weeks after hearing of someone close dying."

Heart attack symptoms to watch for include chest pain and shortness of breath.

The report, published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, is the first to examine heart attack risk in the immediate aftermath of a bereavement.

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