New research suggests that losing a loved one may double your risk of suffering cardiovascular events like heart attack or stroke, illuminating another mortality factor for the aging population.
Dr. Sunil Shah, a lecturer at St. George University in London and co-author of the new study, said in a press release that the findings also reveal a clinical significance of an old adage. “We often use the term a ‘broken heart’ to signify the pain of losing a loved one,” he said. “Our study shows that bereavement can have a direct effect on the health of the heart.”
For their investigation, Shah and colleagues enrolled patients ages 60 and up whose partners had recently died. They then compared this group’s rate of adverse cardiovascular events to that of a control group consisting of patients whose partners had not died.
Over the 30 days immediately following their partner’s death, patients in the treatment group were twice as likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke compared to study participants who had not lost their significant other. According to the researchers, this fatal heartbreak may arise from several biological changes associated with emotional loss and trauma. “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,” Shah explained. “All these will contribute to an increased risk of events such as heart attacks and stroke after loss of a partner.”
Hidden Health Risks of Old Age
The current study is the latest in growing series of efforts to identify new mortality factors across the older population. Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Chicago showed that feelings of loneliness and solitude brought by separation or loss may raise an older person’s risk of premature death by 14 percent. Similarly, a 2013 study from Ohio State University suggests that loneliness may weaken your immune system.
According to Dr. Iain Carey, Senior Research Fellow and lead author, the findings may ultimately help improve prevention and screening protocols. “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,” he said. “A better understanding of psychological and social factors associated with acute cardiovascular events may provide opportunities for prevention and improved clinical care.”
Source: Carey IM, Shah SM, DeWilde S, et al. Increased Risk of Acute Cardiovascular Events After Partner Bereavement. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2014.