Jan. 9, 2012 -- Losing a loved one may break your heart in more ways than one.
A person who is mourning the death of someone close is at greater risk of suffering a heart attack in the days immediately following the loss and for up to a month afterward, a new study shows.
The researchers say it's the first study to look at whether a meaningful loss can trigger a heart attack in someone who is grieving. It also identifies the most vulnerable time period for an elevated heart-health risk in the bereaved.
The research, which appears in the journal Circulation, looked at almost 2,000 people who had been hospitalized for a heart attack between 1989 and 1994. After reviewing charts and interviewing these men and women, whose average age was 61, 270 people were found to have experienced a death of an important person during the six months leading up to their heart attack.
Nineteen people in the study said they lost a loved one the day before having a heart attack. Fifteen of these 19 had no history of heart attacks.
Following the death of someone close, the researchers found that heart attack risk:
Was 21 times higher than normal within the first day
Was nearly six times higher than normal within the first week
Although the death of someone close is a rare reason for a heart attack, the researchers theorize that the emotional stress of grief, including anger, anxiety, and depression, can take a toll on the heart.
When the body releases more stress-related hormones, this might increase a person's heart rate, blood pressure, and tendency for blood clotting.
And after losing someone they care about, people tend to sleep and eat less, and they may smoke more and forget to take their medication.
These are some of the reasons why people who are grieving are at a much higher risk for heart attack than usual.
"Friends and family of bereaved people should provide close support to help prevent such incidents, especially near the beginning of the grieving process," says researcher Elizabeth Mostofsky, ScD. She is a research fellow in the department of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.