The Grapevine

A Heartbreak Can Actually Kill You

Ever heard of the widowhood effect? Even if the term seems unfamiliar, you are very likely to have read sentimental news stories about it. This is a phenomenon where a person dies shortly after the death of their long-time spouse.

The passing of Johnny Cash four months after the death of June Carter can be considered a famous example. But the definition of "shortly" has dipped much lower in other cases, ranging from a few days after to even a few minutes after

But how does this happen? While the unbearable burden of a broken heart is a poetic way of putting it, there does seem to be a more science-based explanation. 

Losing a loved one is a difficult experience which can cause immense shock, stress, and sorrow. And in many cases, the longer a couple has been together, the harder will be the impact of the loss. In a new study, researchers examined blood samples from nearly 100 individuals who had recently lost their spouse. The findings were published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology on Oct. 11.

Among them, some participants displayed elevated symptoms of grief — feeling that life is meaningless, being unable to move on, pining for excessively long periods, having a difficult time accepting the reality of the loss, etc.

When comparing the individuals to those who did not exhibit such behaviors, the researchers found that the group experiencing elevated grief had 17 percent higher levels of bodily inflammation.

Experts note that long-term inflammation is linked to many diseases, especially among older adults. These include heart disease, stroke, gut disorders, blood clots, Alzheimer's disease, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.

"We also know that depression is linked to higher levels of inflammation, and those who lose a spouse are at considerably higher risk of major depression, heart attack, stroke, and premature mortality," said lead author Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Rice University, Texas.

"However, this is the first study to confirm that grief — regardless of people's levels of depressive symptoms — can promote inflammation, which in turn can cause negative health outcomes," he added.

Of course, the older a person is, the weaker their body is and the more dependent they may be on their loved one. In other words, this is why bereaved older adults are more likely to die from a broken heart than bereaved younger adults.

So the important finding here is that it identifies who among the bereaved are at highest risk. With this in mind, Fagundes says, health experts may be able to design interventions to target this risk factor with the help of medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, combination treatment, etc.