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Study: Grief Over Losing a Loved One Linked to Heart Risk

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Your chances of getting a heart attack could increase days and weeks after you lose a loved one, according to a study published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

The study, which included 1,985 adult heart attack survivors, found the risk of heart attack increased to 21 times higher than normal within the first day after the death of a loved one; six times higher within the first week; but the risk declines steadily over the first month after a death.

Results also revealed that the raised chances of getting a heart attack within the first week after the loss of a close person ranges from one per 320 people with a high heart attack risk, to one per 1,394 people with a low heart attack risk.

Doctors previously identified a condition called “Broken heart syndrome,” a temporary heart condition brought on by stressful situations, such as the death of a loved one. People with broken heart syndrome may have sudden chest pain or think they’re having a heart attack.

Past studies have confirmed that spouses who have lost partners make up 53 percent of deaths, and they also have an increased risk of dying with heart disease or stroke.

“Caretakers, healthcare providers, and the bereaved themselves need to recognize they are in a period of heightened risk in the days and weeks after hearing of someone close dying,” said Dr. Murray Mittleman, a preventive cardiologist and epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

The research was part of the multicenter Determinants of MI Onset Study, and entailed interviewing patients during their stay in hospital, after having heart attacks between 1989 and 1994. One of the questions included was whether they lost a close person within the past year, also when the death occurred, and how close was the relationship.

It was found that those who lost a significant person to death had increased psychological stress, blood pressure, and blood clotting, which can all lead to a heart attack. They also had low sleep and appetite, as well as higher cortisol levels, which can also increase the risk of having severe heart trouble.

Lead author of the study, Elizabeth Mostofsky, said “Friends and family of bereaved people should provide close support to help prevent such incidents, especially near the beginning of the grieving process. Mittleman suggests that the patient be extra cognizant of their health after the death of a loved one.

“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,” he cautioned.

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