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Can You Die of a Broken Heart?

March 1, 2014

The aftermath of an emotionally distressing incident, like the death of a loved one, can be devastating, and we often talk of feeling like our hearts have been broken. Broken Heart Syndrome had been first officially described in the 1990s, and now researchers from St. George`s University of London, UK have shown that the chance of experiencing a stroke or heart attack after a partner`s death doubles within the first 30 days.

The Mayo Clinic describes Broken Heart Syndrome as a temporary heart condition brought on by stressful situations. People "may have sudden chest pain, or think they are having a heart attack…there is a temporary disruption of your heart`s normal pumping function, while the remainder of the heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions."

The condition may also be called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, apical ballooning syndrome or stress cardiomyopathy by doctors.

The researchers at St. George`s note that the grief can lead to increased physical stress, and the loss of interest can result in individuals forgetting to take essential medication, leading to further complications.

As part of the investigation of the link between bereavement and cardiovascular problems, the team assessed the rate of stroke or heart attack in patients over the age of 60 whose partner died. They then compared that with individuals whose partners were still alive.

In total, there were 30,447 individuals in the study whose partner had died, and 83,588 controls whose partners had not.

After 30 days, however, this increased risk began to fall in individuals who lost a loved one.

Dr. Sunil Shah, co-author and senior lecturer at St. George`s University of London, says:
"We often use the term ‘broken heart` to signify the pain of losing a loved one, and our study shows that bereavement can have a direct effect on the health of the heart."

There has been evidence from other previous studies that partner loss and grief can lead to changes in blood clotting, blood pressure and heart rate control, Dr. Shah says.
"In addition, we have found, in another study, that in the first few months after bereavement, individuals may not consistently take their regular preventive medication, such as cholesterol-lowering drugs or aspirin," he adds.

All of these factors can contribute to increased risks of cardiovascular events, and Dr. Shah says it is important for doctors, friends and family to be aware of these increased risks.

Dr. Iain Carey, senior research fellow at the university, says:
"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.
A better understanding of psychological and social factors associated with acute cardiovascular events may provide opportunities for prevention and improved clinical care."