March 31, 2008 (Chicago) -- If the anniversary of the loss of a loved one is approaching, try to prepare for the grief you will experience. That's the advice of doctors who found that the psychological stress associated with that date may raise your own risk of dying suddenly.
"The anniversary of the death of a close family member, especially a mother or father, is an important trigger of sudden death, especially in males," says researcher Ivan Mendoza, MD, of the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.
Mendoza and colleagues reviewed 102 documented cases of sudden death in people ages 37 to 79. In 13 cases, the death occurred on the anniversary of a parent's death.
Ten of the sudden deaths occurred in men, and four of the 13 died at the same age their parent did, Mendoza says.
Sudden death was not related to the loss of any other family member.
The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology (ACC).
Who Is Vulnerable to Sudden Death?
According to Mendoza, sudden death is responsible for nearly half of all cardiac deaths. Sudden death is unexpected and occurs rapidly, frequently within an hour after symptoms such as chest pain or breathlessness strike. It's usually caused by abnormal heart rhythms.
You may be especially vulnerable if you have had a heart attack or if you have a family history of sudden death or heart disease, or heart disease risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes, he says.
In the study, about two-thirds of the patients were already at risk for sudden death due to underlying coronary artery disease, in which plaque builds up in the arteries, making it harder for blood to get through and depriving the heart muscle of oxygen.
How to Deal With Grief
Mendoza tells WebMD that patients and doctors need to be more aware of the psychological risk factors that can raise the risk of sudden death.
In a separate analysis, he and colleagues found that anger was also a trigger for sudden death.
Mendoza advises people to talk to their doctors about strategies to prevent sudden death, including behavior modification, stress reduction, and treatment of heart disease risk factors, such as high cholesterol.
Janet Wright, MD, senior vice president for science and quality at the ACC and moderator of a news conference to discuss the findings, says that many people "are stoic about death. That sublimated grief can lead to depression, which in turn can lead to stopping medication, withdrawing from friends, and becoming more isolated -- all factors [that] contribute to cardiac events."
Barry J. Jacobs, PsyD, a behavioral scientist based in Springfield, Pa., and a spokesman for the American Heart Association, advises patients "to talk about it. Rather than ignore the event, make plans for memorializing a person you care about on the anniversary."
That can involve "going to the grave to grieve, having a memorial mass if you're Catholic, or engaging in another meaningful act to commemorate the life of the person you love," he tells WebMD.