Jan. 9, 2012 at 4:00 PM ET
The loss of a loved one can literally turn heartache into heartbreak, a new study shows.
Researchers found the risk of a heart attack jumped to 21 times higher than normal in the day following the death of a close relative or friend, according to the study published in the journal Circulation.
And that spike occurred even in people at low risk of heart attack, said the study’s lead author, Elizabeth Mostofsky, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Harvard School of Public Health.
“That’s why this study sends such an important message,” Mostofsky said. “If you see someone dealing with grief you need to recognize if they’re having symptoms of a heart attack. You need to realize that they might not just be dealing with grief, but might need medical attention.”
Between 1989 and 1994, the researchers interviewed 1,985 adult heart attack survivors while the patients were still in the hospital. Their average age was just under 62 and they were followed until 2007. Men seemed to be more affected than women, she added.
"Men have a higher risk than women when they lose a spouse," she explained.
Mostofsky and her colleagues found that the most dangerous time was within the first 24 hours after the death of a close friend or relative, with the risk of heart attack spiking 21 times higher than normal. The risk slowly fell off with time, but was still elevated to six times normal in the week following the death.
While the chance of a heart attack among the bereaved was higher for those with risk factors, it was still significant for those at low risk. And that’s why people need to be aware of the danger, Mostofsky said.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to misinterpret heart attack symptoms such as tightness in the chest, stomach pain, light-headedness, nausea and shortness of breath, as signs of grieving, she added. But someone who is grieving and experiencing these symptoms requires medical attention.
Scientists aren’t sure exactly how intense grief leads to heart attack, but there are some theories.
“People are dealing with depression, anger and anxiety,” Mostofsky said. “That can lead to increases in heart rate and blood pressure. It can also lead to a coagulation response in which the blood is more likely to become sticky and clot and that can lead to a blockage and then a heart attack.”