Heart, Stroke Risk Up after Spouse's Death

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Harvard Medical School
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Heart, Stroke Risk Up after Spouse's Death

News Review From Harvard Medical School

February 26, 2014

News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Heart, Stroke Risk Up after Spouse's Death

The risk of a heart attack or stroke doubles for older adults in the month after they lose a spouse or partner, a new study suggests. The study looked at the medical histories of 2 groups of adults, ages 60 through 89. One group included 30,500 men and women who had lost a spouse or partner between 2005 and 2012. The other group included 83,600 people in the same age group who had not lost a partner. In the month after the partner died, the bereaved person was twice as likely to have a fatal or nonfatal heart attack or stroke as someone who did not have such a loss. But the number of these events was small. And after 90 days the heart attack and stroke rates were about the same in both groups. The journal JAMA Internal Medicine published the study. HealthDay News wrote about it February 24.

 

By Reena L. Pande, M.D.
Harvard Medical School

 

What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

The death of a spouse can lead to a very difficult time emotionally. But this period of mourning appears to be linked to increased medical health risks as well.  In fact, a new study shows that the risk of having a heart attack or stroke is nearly double in the 30 days after your husband or wife dies.  

A team of researchers in the United Kingdom looked at records from more than 30,000 people, ages 60 to 89, who had suffered the death of a spouse or partner. They were compared with a similar group who had not had a spouse die recently.

The researchers found that the risk of heart attack and stroke was double in those who had the recent death of a spouse.  The risk was highest in the first 30 days after the death. Then it returned to the normal risk for men and women in the same age group.

Bereavement is the period of grief after the death of a loved one. The grieving process is natural. Everyone grieves in his or her own personal way. Truthfully, there is no time limit to grief, whether you are mourning the loss of a loved one or dealing with another type of tragedy.

Grief and depression are not the same thing. However, many of the features of grief can be quite similar to major depression.

Depression is well known to worsen outcomes in many medical conditions. For example, more than 1 person in 4 with heart disease has depression. People with both conditions are more likely to end up in the hospital than heart patients without depression. They also are more likely to develop heart failure or die.  

Grief and sadness are also well known to be linked to heart problems. The so-called "broken heart syndrome" can occur after a major stress in life, including the death of a loved one.

Doctors call this condition stress-induced cardiomyopathy. It looks and feels just like a heart attack. But a heart attack is caused by a blockage in a major blood vessel. Someone with  stress-induced cardiomyopathy has no blockages, but the heart can be severely weakened. Fortunately, this condition can be treated. Patients can make a full recovery.

 

What Changes Can I Make Now?

The first step is to understand the symptoms of grief and depression. Both grief and depression may cause:

  • Sadness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

However, major depression has distinct features. They include:

  • Guilt
  • A sense of worthlessness
  • Prolonged inability to do regular daily activities
  • Thoughts of death and dying

It's important to realize that help is available as you deal with your grief.

  • Counseling -- Many people benefit from therapy to help them understand their emotions and address the challenges and barriers to recovery. This may take the form of individual or group support.
  • Medicines -- Grief can also lead to difficulty sleeping, anxiety and other symptoms. In some cases, medicines can help.

Recognizing the symptoms of a true heart attack or broken heart syndrome is critical. Sometimes they can feel a lot like anxiety. Be alert for any signs of heart disease:

  • Chest discomfort (including pain, pressure, tightness, squeezing or burning)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Arm or jaw discomfort
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness

 

What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

We continue to gain a better understanding of the effects of emotional health on physical health. It is becoming increasingly clear that addressing emotional health, with therapy or medicines, can have a positive effect on overall health. Feeling better, feeling happier and managing grief and depression all allow people to take better care of themselves and feel healthier overall.

In the future, we will need to develop better ways to reach out to people in need to get them the help to feel better.

 

 

Last updated February 26, 2014


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