Healthy living

Loved one's death raises heart attack risk

heart attack Extreme psychological stress

The death of a loved one increases the risk of heart attack, according to new research.

A study by Harvard University researchers showed that the risk of a heart attack was 21 times higher than normal during the first day, and six times higher than normal in the first week after the death of a loved one.

After this, the risk of a heart attack declined, but still remained higher than normal for at least a month, the study found.

The researchers said the study was the first of its kind to focus on heart attack risk during the first days and weeks after someone close has died.

The psychological stress caused by intense grief can increase the heart rate, blood pressure and blood clotting, raising the risk of a heart attack, the researchers said.

The bereaved are also more likely to experience sleep loss, have a diminished appetite, have higher cortisol levels and may neglect taking medications, all of which can add to the risk.

Researchers reached their conclusions after questioning 1,985 adults in hospital who had survived a heart attack. Patients were asked a series of questions about potentially triggering events, including losing someone close to them in the past year. 

They found the risk of a heart attack in the first week after the death of someone close ranged from one in 320 people in those who were already at high risk of a heart attack to one in 1,394 people in those at low risk.

"Caretakers, healthcare providers, and the bereaved themselves need to recognise they are in a period of heightened risk in the weeks after hearing of someone close dying, said study leader Dr Murray Mittleman.

"During situations of extreme grief and psychological distress, you still need to take care of yourself and seek medical attention for symptoms of a heart attack," he said.

Signs of a heart attack include chest discomfort, upper body or stomach pain, shortness of breath, breaking into a cold sweat, nausea and lightheadedness.

Professor Peter Weissberg, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: "We’re already aware that, under exceptional circumstances, emotional stress can trigger a heart attack.

"But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that heart attacks triggered by stress normally only happen in people with underlying heart disease.

"It’s very important that if you’re taking medication because you have, or are at high risk of, heart disease, don’t neglect taking it following a significant bereavement."

The study is published in the journal Circulation.

This article was published on Tue 10 January 2012

Image © Cecilia Lim -

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