Someone dying of a broken heart might sound like something on the pages of film scripts and novels, but a new study indicates that bereavement increases the risk of developing an actual, potentially life-threatening heart problem.
Danish researchers have linked experiencing the loss of a partner to a higher risk of developing an irregular heartbeat – something that can lead to stroke or even heart failure. And the risk was greater in those whose loved ones died unexpectedly.
However, the (somewhat) good news is that the risk decreases over time.
The team, led by Dr Simon Graff, set out to “examine the risk of atrial fibrillation [irregular heartbeat] after the death of a partner” and found that such a stressful experience increased the risk for a year afterwards.
Assessing data from the Danish population between 1995 and 2014, the team collected information on 88,612 people newly diagnosed with atrial fibrillation and 886,120 healthy people, matched for age and sex. 17,478 of those with the heart problem had lost their partner, as had 168,940 of the comparison group.
The risk of developing an irregular heartbeat for the first time was 41% higher with those who had suffered a bereavement than those who hadn't, irrespective of underlying health conditions. The risk rose to 57% if the person who'd died has been assessed as being at low risk of dying in the short-term, and thus unexpected.
The highest risk, according to researchers, was among people under the age of 60, described as “more than twice as likely to develop atrial fibrillation if they had been bereaved”.
Given the physical manifestations of stress, dying of a broken heart perhaps isn’t as unlikely as it seems.
The study, published by the journal Open Heart, points out: “The loss of a partner is considered one of the most severely stressful life events and is likely to affect most people, independently of coping mechanisms. Bereavement often causes mental illness symptoms such as depression, anxiety, guilt, anger and hopelessness.”
The research also points to previous studies having found that severely stressful life events increase the risk of cardiovascular events.
The risk was highest “8-14 days after the loss” and declined over the following 12 months, after which “the risk was almost the same as in the non-bereaved population.”
Although various factors weren’t taken into account that could potentially have a bearing on whether someone would develop an irregular heartbeat, the team pointed out that bereavement is known to increase cardiovascular disease, mental illness, and even death, and that people who suffer from atrial fibrillation report emotional stress as a trigger.